Why Turkey is backing Qatar in Gulf diplomatic crisis

Kayhan Ozer, AFP archive | Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim ben Hamad al-Thani.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday that he backs Qatar’s dismissal of the ultimatum sent by Saudi Arabia and its allies.


The 13 conditions to end the diplomatic and trade boycott of Qatar go “too far”, Erdogan told reporters after morning prayers at an Istanbul mosque.

He asserted that the demands are “against international law”, and an “attack on the sovereign rights of a state".

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain sent the ultimatum to the Qataris on 23 June through Kuwaiti go-betweens, with 10 days to comply or face unspecified retaliation.

On Saturday Qatar refused to follow the 13 requirements, condemning them as unreasonable contraventions of its sovereignty. They include removing Turkish troops from Qatari soil -- condemned by Erdogan this morning as a “disrespect to Turkey” -- shutting down the state-owned Al-Jazeera news organisation, substantially reducing co-operation with Iran, and cutting ties with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar’s isolation is a regional power play

This week Ankara sent a food cargo to the small Gulf state -- which imports about 80 percent of its food, causing the embargo to empty its supermarket shelves. Earlier this month, Turkey’s parliament hurriedly passed legislation allowing the country to send several thousand troops to their base in Qatar and to carry out joint exercises with their Qatari counterparts.

Turkey initially presented itself as a neutral broker in the crisis. On 6 June, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared that the Arab states are “all our Sunni brothers and our friends". So why is Turkey now explicitly backing Qatar?

The most obvious reason is that Doha is Ankara’s most loyal ally in the region, if not the world. It is worth highlighting that on the night of the attempted military coup in Turkey last year, the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was the first leader to telephone Erdogan, making explicit Qatar’s advocacy of the president against his would-be ousters. Contrastingly, and potentially worryingly for Erdogan, most world leaders -- even Turkish allies -- were slow to express support.

But there is a deeper factor underlying Turkey’s support for Qatar: the two countries espouse the same vision for the Sunni countries of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and the current Egyptian government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi all stand in opposition to the forces unleashed in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010 to 2012.

"The evidence of extremism is overwhelming"

That is to say that their attitude to governance of fellow Sunni Middle Eastern countries is conservative. With the exception of military-led authoritarian Egypt, they are monarchies. They were aghast when then US president Barack Obama dropped his support for Sisi’s predecessor Hosni Mubarak in 2011, paving the way for a brief period of Muslim Brotherhood rule. The monarchies regard the Brotherhood as a threat to their dynastic model; for Egypt, it is a threat to their relatively secular, military-backed authoritarian model.

In contrast, both Turkey and Qatar have supported the Muslim Brotherhood, which saw the ‘Arab Spring’ as an opportunity to spring up against the authoritarian Middle Eastern governments that had long suppressed it. Erdogan publicly defended the group this February, asserting that “it is not an armed group, but is in actual fact an ideological organisation". Turkey, like Qatar, has taken in Brotherhood figures expelled from Egypt. Moreover, in 2015, two years after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo, Erdogan declared that “for me, Morsi is Egypt’s President, not Sisi". Doha offered similar enthusiasm for the Brotherhood’s political activities in Egypt. That is while Youssef al-Qaradawi, the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, not only preaches at one of Doha’s biggest mosques – he was also given his own programme on Al-Jazeera.

Turkey and Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, whether tacit or explicit, seems incompatible with the extremely small ‘c’ conservative political vision defended and promoted by Saudi Arabia and its allies. With Erdogan seeing few solid allies in the region, it seems he felt he had no choice but to side with the small yet like-minded Qatar.

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