Turkey's Erdogan in Qatar on first Arab trip since Syria campaign

Doha (AFP) –


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Qatar Monday on his first official trip to an Arab country since Ankara's forces intervened in northeast Syria last month against Kurdish fighters.

Ankara and Doha have grown closer since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with their former Gulf ally more than two years ago.

The bitter rift came over accusations that Qatar supports extremist groups and wants closer links with Iran, the arch-rival of regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia.

However, Erdogan's visit comes at a critical time amid signs of a possible breakthrough in the crisis between Qatar and its neighbours -- in what could be pushing Ankara to further bolster its political and economic relations with Doha.

Erdogan will attend the fifth meeting of the Qatar-Turkey Higher Strategic Committee at the invitation of Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Qatar News Agency reported.

The two countries are expected to sign a number of deals during Erdogan's third visit to Qatar since the Saudi-led blockade began in June 2017, which led to rising Turkish influence in Doha.

Erdogan is also expected to visit a Turkish military base where around 5,000 troops have been stationed since the Saudi-led blockade amid reports that Qatar intends to buy 100 Turkish tanks.

The burgeoning relationship saw Turkey's military presence in Qatar increase and Doha pledge economic support to Ankara during last year's currency crisis.

Doha declared its support for Ankara after it launched an offensive on October 9 against a Syrian Kurdish militia, but Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt have condemned Turkey's "aggression".

- 'Tough situation' -

Andreas Krieg, a professor at King's College London, said the Qataris were put in a "tough situation" when Turkey launched its operation against Syrian Kurdish forces, considered by Ankara to be "terrorists".

"They acknowledged Turkey's right to defend itself while disagreeing about the means and ways used by Ankara in pursuit of this objective," he told AFP.

"There has been a lot of rumours about this potential disagreement following Qatar-critical coverage in the Turkish press, but in reality there has been no rift in this relationship between Doha and Ankara that is mostly based on a personal relationship between Erdogan and Qatar's Emir."

After the Gulf crisis erupted, Turkey was at the forefront of nations supplying Qatar with food and services, bypassing the blockade imposed by the Saudi-led nations.

Qatar last year announced a $15-billion loan to Turkey's fragile banking sector and also gave a luxury jumbo jet -- reportedly worth around $400 million -- as a "gift" to Ankara.

The two nations have similar policies over Islamist groups, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey's relations with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are rocky, and ties between Riyadh and Ankara worsened significantly after Washington Post contributor and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.

However, the decision by football teams from the Saudi-led bloc to play at a tournament in Qatar could herald a rapprochement.

The Saudi and UAE squads arrived on Monday to compete in the Arabian Gulf tournament in Doha from November 26, despite their nations' two-year boycott of Qatar.

Bahrain also said it would take part.

Cinzia Bianco, Gulf Research Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Erdogan's visit was "key" at this time.

"Erdogan is trying to make sure that a rumoured Gulf appeasement won't come at the expense of Qatar-Turkey relations," she told AFP.