Turkish and Qatari strategic relationship is carrying significance in the region while also preserving its unique status in international relations. Both of these two states adopted a similar approach during Arab Spring and post-Arab Spring environment. This led to an increase in cooperation in 2010s most significantly. This cooperation turned into a strategic alliance. Supreme Strategic Council that has been established between Turkey and Qatar is the institutional body of this strategic alliance, and is leading by Sheikh Tamim and President Erdogan as its co-presidents.1 Türkiye – Katar Siyasi İlişkileri (Turkey-Qatar Political Ties) Regional political developments; most significantly coup d’etat in Egypt, created a new depth in Turkish-Qatari relations; UAE and Saudi Arabia openly supported and financed a putsch in Egypt by Abdel Fettah al-Sisi. Turkey and Qatar’s position has conflicted with UAE-Saudi influence in Egypt on this particular occasion. Afterward, two blocks have conflicted in Libya too by supporting different sides in the post-Gaddafi environment. Turkey’s relations have strained with the UAE-Saudi block; since it is revealed that UAE funneled money to Fetullahist terrorists through Mohammad Dahlan.2 UAE ‘ funneled money to Turkish coup plotters‘ In this event; Qatar stood by Turkey and legitimate Turkish government3 Qatar denounces military coup attempt in Turkey and after UAE-Saudi block announced illegal blockade to Qatar; Turkey was the one the first states which send necessary material aid to Qatar and declare its support to Qatar4 Turkey’s Erdogan condemns Qatar blockade ‘death sentence‘ ; besides its commitment to the alliance. Afterward, relations between the UAE-Saudi block and the Turkish-Qatari alliance have spilled all over the region. While the latter experienced a temporary setback, it managed to hold the line and launch a counter-offensive too. In Libya, Haftar’s putschist forces were driven back from the gates of Tripoli; while UAE’s normalization with Israel backfires and draw negative reaction even from Saudi Arabia; which led to lift of the blockade of Qatar, without even achieving one of their goals. The alliance also benefited from internal disputes within the UAE-Saudi block. Most importantly, UAE’s will to pursue an independent agenda from Saudi Arabia caused certain frictions. These frictions paved the way for Turkey and Qatar to regain their former advantages and achieve a more secure position.
Consequently, it is possible to argue that the Turkish-Qatari alliance managed to hold its position after a negative momentum, then begin to achieve its older gains. Right now, there is a stalemate between the Turkish-Qatari alliance and its regional rivals; but obviously, momentum is in favor of the alliance too. These successful outcomes are unique in many terms; first of all, the Turkish-Qatari alliance has a considerable within a regional security complex which is penetrated by numerous global actors by not bandwagoning any of them but also while avoiding making an enemy of those global actors. This alliance is proved to be quite effective outside of its region also with its joint effect in Somalia. This effectiveness proved that the alliance is quite able to penetrate other regions as well, such as the Horn of Africa. The Alliance’s capabilities and successful acts proving that certain rules of geo-politics can be changed with this sort of unique cooperation. What is the factors that make the Turkish-Qatari alliance so unique that enabling it to change certain rules of geo-politics and why it is working on the Turkish-Qatari alliance; instead of the UAE-Saudi block; despite the generous support that is presented to them by the Trump administration. This analysis is aiming to investigate the uniqueness of the Turkish-Qatari alliance by examining Turkey’s and Qatar’s geopolitical role and how are they fitting into it; besides examining possible strategical options for the alliance as well.
Understanding the international relations can be a challenging thing. If one is limit himself to the structural realm; he will surely miss certain factors that are more influential than they look. On the other hand, unit-level analysis, especially an ambitious one, usually tend to overlook the structural reality and taking the subject as an atomistic being; which is not possible if we are talking about a subject related to the social sciences. Thus, historicization of the subject is carrying great importance. Through historicization it is possible to identify the formation of self, other, and threat understanding of one subject. Historicization is an excellent analytical tool to observe the formation of identity without being limited to structural reality or unit-level realm. This is why, this analysis will try to historicize the relations between Turkey and Qatar.
Two states established bilateral relations in 1972, one year after Qatari declaration of independence. Yet, the relations between these two states are rooted way deeper than that. In 1550s, Ottomans managed to complete their administrative organization in Qatif, al Ahsa, Qatar, certain parts of Najd and Bahrain.5 Kurşun, Zekeriya, (2004), Basra Körfezi’nde Osmanlı-İngiliz Çekişmesi Katar’da Osmanlılar 1871-1916, Türk Tarih Kurumu Yayınları: Ankara, p.23 It is understood that Ottomans were intended to establish a sole sanjak6 An administrative body in Qatar; but they failed to do so due to Portuguese-backed Bahraini rebellion.7 ibid, 24-25 Even though attempts to establish a sole sanjak on Qatar has failed; Ottoman sovereignty on Qatar remained intact. Ottomans changed their attitude and choose to preserve traditional administrative structure that is acknowledging the autonomy of the Arab tribes in the region at some point; as long as Ottoman Sultan’s name mentioned in Friday sermons as ruler and taxes being paid.8 ibid, 25-28 This situation has continued until the first Saudi rebellion; due to Ottomans inability to quell the rebellion; they asked help from their governor of Egypt; but afterwards Ottomans experienced another conflict with the governor; resulting withdraw of Egyptian forces from Najd and surrounding area; eventually led to a power vacuum and British interest to the area as well.9 ibid, 30-31 During this era, Bahrain fell under British influence and British Indian administration send a fleet to Bahrain, under the alibi of fighting piracy; this event turned into an argument between British and Ottoman foreign ministries and eventually British gain a foothold in Bahrain.10 ibid, 41-42 To prevent British influence from expanding, to establish authority by forming administrative bodies and garrisons in Qatif, al Ahsa and Qatar; governor of Baghdad, Midhat Pasha launch a military operation.11 ibid, 43-45 In this operation, Ottoman strategy was focused on Qatar; since due to geographically close position of Qatar to Bahrain was driving British attention to Qatar and primary target was to prevent this situation; yet, directly invading Qatar won’t be an answer to the problem because of former power vacuum; thus, Qatari invitation was a must for Ottomans.12 ibid, 50 In 1871, Sheikh Jaseem bin al Thani invited Ottomans to the Qatar; as a result of that four Ottoman flags had been sent to Qatar and Sheikh Jaseem bin al Thani appointed as the kaymakam.13 ibid, 55-56 Following to this occasion, British come to Qatar to collect taxes in the name of puppet state Bahrain; in response of that, Sheik al Thani showed Ottoman flags as to prove Ottoman sovereignty over the Qatar and avoid paying taxes to British; as a result, British go back to Bahrain without achieving anything.14 ibid, 56 This particular event proving that skilled diplomacy of Qatari royal family. By inviting Ottomans to the peninsula, Qataris managed to hold back British-Bahraini influence and rule of al Thani family has been approved by the caliph itself; which boost the legitimacy of the family. Limited garrison on the island didn’t undermine the authority of the al Thani family; while it became a sign of force against other hostile Arab tribes around the region. Afterwards, Ottomans and al Thani relations were continued. Even though there are certain difficulties within this relationship, there never was a full-scale rebellion or oppression against Qataris. In 1913 Ottomans signed a treaty with British in 1913, to accept to leave Qatar; however ruling CUP15 Committee of Union and Progress delay the retreat16 Ottomans were reluctant to leave Qatar; due to Qataris positive attitude to Ottoman soldiers and their negative attitude towards an Ottoman retreat. Enver Pasha’s special envoy Major Ömer Fevzi Bey advised to forming a militia constituted by Qataris to fight against any British incursion (ibid, 150) and eventually making the treaty obsolete; yet Ottomans lose the peninsula anyway in 1916. According to Kurşun17 İbid, 151 , it was Jaseem al Thani’s will to keep Ottoman garrison on Qatar and he prevent numerous Saudi attempts to oust Ottoman garrison from Qatar.
Relationship between al Thani family and Istanbul, besides the fact that Qataris were not involved in the Saudi-Hashimi rebellion are quite important features in recent Turkish-Qatari alliance. This shared history without any sort of betrayal or serious conflict keeping the Turkish-Qatari page clean and differentiating Qatar from other Arab nations in the region in Turkish perspective. While Turkey is experiencing strained relations with Arab nations oftenly; Qatar was a never subject of this situation. It is mostly related with relatively peaceful and cooperative relations between two entities. As a result; Qatari otherness in Turkish perspective is constructed as amity instead of enmity. Absence of a big rebellion and relatively easy transition probably led to same construction at Qatari side also. This syndrome-free background considerably eases the situation for both states to create alliances and act in a cooperative manner.
As it is already mentioned, what makes the Turkish-Qatari alliance unique is not its historical roots or a specific type of cooperation. Although, Turkey and Qatar constructed each other in a positive sense; they still have a long road to form a security community together or leading a security regime in the MENA region as well. Moreover, the Turkish-Qatari alliance is a pretty typical one that can be formed within a regional security complex if we are going to use regional security complex and balance-of-power as analytical tools to understand the uniqueness of this relation. I, take Turkey’s and Qatar’s hierarchical position as what make this relationship as unique.
Qatar is a small state. Especially in the military sense. It covers a little portion of land in the Gulf and can be easily overrun by Saudi Arabia or Iran. By being a peninsula, it looks like it is possible to turn Qatar into a fortress; but giving Qatar’s grand strategy, this option has been eliminated from start. On the contrary of its military weakness, Qatar is a skilled user of diplomacy and utilizing soft power tools since 90s. Besides, Qatar’s huge economy and use of the Qatar Investment Fund, mostly to diversify its economy and creating resilience to unstable energy markets. Consequently, Qatar became a key actor in international real estate, finance, investment and energy markets through these diversification efforts and this situation contributed Qatar’s soft power immensely.18 Miller, Rory, (2019), “Katar, Körfez Krizi ve Uluslararası İlişkilerde Küçük Devlet Davranışı”, Körfez Krizi Kıskacında Katar, (ed.) Rory Miller, (trn. Gökçe Katkıcı), Küre Yayınları: İstanbul, p. 99 Giving all these factors it is a challenging task to identify Qatar’s power ranking. Yes, it is small. Its population, its military, its land; they are all small; yet, by using its economic might smartly; Qatar managed to influence the region; especially during Arab Spring. It didn’t, and isn’t, act like a small state; refuse to bandwagon and to be bullied and created a sovereign foreign policy. This attitude of Qatar has also questioned the concept of power and made a lot of people to revisit soft power.
Turkey is also a challenging task; when it is come to identifying its position in the international hierarchy. Turkey is a serious military force in its region with a fragile economy but most importantly carrying a historical record. This historical record can be a miraculous advantage as well as a burden based on the interlocutor. Turkish historical ties, regardless from the region, sometimes labeled as neo-Ottomanism (negative) and sometimes as a protector (positive) figure. This situation isn’t making things easier for Turkish policy-makers since their sense of duty or moral obligations usually reflected as neo-Ottomanism within certain circles. Nonetheless, Turkish historical ties to a huge geographical area are a source of power and a burden at the same time. Regardless of our perception, Turkey cannot be a rival to big powers for the most part. This situation of Turkey deemed its position to middle power. To confirm this, during Cold War, Turkey was acted like a middle power indeed. Using collective security measures and international organizations in order to survive in a predatory world. Turkey’s inability to protect itself from a possible Soviet offensive and Soviet influence; but also, its geopolitical position and historical experiences urged Turkey to take sides with the Western alliance. This was a typical middle power behavior.19 Holbraad, Carsten, (1984), Middle Powers in International Politics, The Macmillan Press: London, p. 69 Turkey’s regional interests and influence also strengthened the understanding that perceive Turkey as a middle power.20 ibid, 73 Middle powers also draw power from their moral position.21 Cooper, Andrew F., Higgot, Richard A., Nossal, Kim, (1993), Relocating Middle Powers: Australia and Canada in a Changing World Order, Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, p. 19 Turkey’s moral position after World War 222 Turkish diplomats in Europe helped European Jews to escape and survive Holocaust, Turkey is a founding member of United Nations and in addition, Turkey showed its will to become a democracy in the after-WW2 environment also helped Turkey to adopt its position as a middle power. In other words, middle powers draw their powers from their contribution to the new world order. This non-atomistic approach will be used while explaining the uniqueness of the Turkish-Qatari alliance. More importantly, even though middle powers are able to create security alliances; they are more tend to follow those that have been established by great powers.23 Cooper, Andrew F., Higgot, Richard A., Nossal, Kim, (1993), Relocating Middle Powers: Australia and Canada in a Changing World Order, Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, p. 117-118 This situation is especially true for Turkey; since Turkey-led regional security alliances; such as Sadabad Pact and Balkan pact prior to World War 2 but it was even more enthusiastic to follow United Nations and NATO as well.
In a nutshell, Turkey is a middle power and Qatar is a small state in geopolitical terms. The cooperation of these two units within a regional security complex can be observed throughout the world. It is not a new thing. Especially considering Turkey’s and Qatar’s willingness to maintain their positive relations with the United States; it is quite easy to say that the Turkish-Qatari alliance is not a revisionist one; yet as it is going to be discussed, it is far from being a bandwagon to a superpower.
The illegal blockade started in 2017 gave old school geo-political understanding a victory. Many lectured Qatar to adopt its position as small state and act like one; bandwagon and happily accept being bullied; in order to “survive” in an anarchic environment.24 Qatar: Big lessons from a small country Mahbubani’s claim was that Qatar’s middle-power-like actions and its denial its own position as small state led to its own demise; since small states can’t act like middle powers due to their lack of material capabilities to protect themselves from aggression. This conviction didn’t age well obviously. First of all, Qatar never forget its weakness in military sense. Qatar is enjoying good military relations with a superpower, United States, while it is also keeping its positive relations with other Western states, such as France and Germany.25 Lekhwiya, French National Gendarmerie sign agreement Doing this, Qatar is adopting a global protection; while cautiously sticking its sovereign foreign policy. Second, Qatar also formed strong non-Arab regional alliances. Unlike the lectures Qatar has received during the crisis; going outside of Gulf ensured Qatar’s survival in this case. Military base of a middle power, Turkey, in the peninsula became a deterrent for aggressors. Besides, unlike superficial advises of Mahbubani; it was wiser for Qatar to diversify its foreign policy options as UAE-Saudi block already acted as adversaries in 1996; while GCC was still intact.26 New details revealed on 1996 coup attempt against Qatar Mahbubani’s unwilling attitude to understand Gulf’s unique conditions led him to spill superficial advises. In fact, there was a trust problem between Qatar and rest of GCC and realizing that, Qatar has diversified its foreign policy options. For some time, it was a challenging effort for Qatar to diversify its foreign policy options within the region. Iraq was an adversary of the Gulf, Iran’s expansionist agenda as well as sectarian differences were constituting a limit to good relations between two states, Baathist Syria was an ideological adversary even though an open conflict was yet far from the scope, Egypt was a one of the supporters 1996 coup d’etat attempt while Jordan and Lebanon were also under Qatar’s adversaries’ influence. These hardships make Turkey is a perfect option for Qatar. Especially with Erdogan came to power. Turkey is a Muslim country without sectarian differences, enjoying institutional relations with Western bloc and has a strong military to deter its regional adversaries as well. This natural tendency has strengthened with the start of Arab Spring and with the reign of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.
Qatar isn’t acting like a small state that is correct; yet Mahbubani was right about one thing. Geo-politics will attempt to make a state pay; if that state isn’t accepting its position in the hierarchy. Yet, Qatar managed to survive this attempt with its skilled diplomacy and rationally selected allies. Qatar is benefiting Turkey from this aspect obviously. Turkish military presence in the peninsula and general Turkish diplomatic support is quite helpful to keep Qatar’s adversaries at bay and ensure its survival. Moreover, when Qatar’s soft power meets its limits, it can combine with Turkish hard power; which ensures Qatar’s and Turkey’s joint benefits can be achieved.
Turkey, on the other hand, adopted a more pro-active approach in its foreign policy during the last decade. This pro-active approach conflicted Turkey’s early position as a middle power. Moreover, it led to a problematic situation for Turkey too. Zero problems with neighbors policy of Davutoglu era has failed terribly when Arab Spring has come to an end in Syria. In addition to its former problems, Turkey has met with some new ones. Besides with the failure of the so-called Solution Process reflected to the transnational area. PKK has strengthened considerably during this process and turned into a bigger problem with its tentacles over Syria. To make it more complex, PKK’s Syrian branch draw considerable support from Turkey’s traditional allies and come to brick of legitimization in the international area. Moreover, Turkey has confronted with Russia, its historical and traditional adversary, on multiple fronts. Even though the view is looking like a complete mess; Turkey managed to cope, more or less, with Russia in three fronts, strike considerable blows against PKK and make sure Assad can’t reach a total victory; while also challenging Iran’s expansionism over Iraq and Syria. In addition, Turkey is trying to cope with the French-Greek axis in Eastern Mediterranean, upon the problem caused by long waiting maritime border issues. While those problems are happening, Turkey managed to obtain a military base in the Horn of Africa; far from the regional security complexes it engages.
View is showing us an intriguing point. Turkey’s independent presence on multiple fronts is completely opposing to the previous position that adopted by Turkey. In other words, Turkey isn’t acting like a middle power; yet its material capabilities and currently exhausted diplomatic relations are coming short to become a big power too. Yet, Turkey is succeeding while not acting as a middle power; since it can protect itself from a big power like Russia by engaging an indirect, hybrid war at multiple fronts against it. Still, it is not a big power and it needs allies. Despite certain difficulties, Turkey is managing to keep its traditional allies and keep being an active member of international organizations also. Yet, it is not sufficient; since Turkey’s traditional allies have already penetrated regional security complexes that Turkey is engaged and have their own agenda, which is conflicting with Turkey’s. Thus, Turkey’s need for a regional ally is clear. For both boosting its legitimacy and combine its power as well. In this aspect, Qatar is presenting a perfect choice for Turkey. Qatar’s immense soft power, its financial capabilities and extensive tribal connections around the Gulf are perfect tools to cope with the anti-Turkish ideological stance in the Arab World. Besides, Qatar’s diplomatic power and presence within international organizations, that Turkey is not participating in, are proved to be helpful to Turkish security operations.27 Qatar breaks ranks with Arab League to give full support to Turkey Moreover, Turkey’s and Qatar’s position in Palestine Issue is helping to improve and preserve their image in Muslim societies. Having an Arab partner, besides following a non-sectarian agenda, in this issue is making it harder to exclude and demonize Turkey; unlike Iran, which is adopting a similar but more radical stance in Palestine Issue, yet is being excluded and demonized throughout Arab World; except within small sectarian societies.
Turkey’s need for Qatar is quite similar to Qatar’s need for Turkey. Turkish military capabilities are in need to be combined with a considerable and foreign soft power. Even though Turkey has focused on the concept of power during the last decade; due to various reasons; Turkish soft power capabilities aren’t developed according to plan. It came short many times when it encounters with anti-Turkish propaganda. Most significantly PKK rhetoric and UAE-Saudi perception management attempts.
In a nutshell, Turkey is a middle power; which is not acting like a middle power and Qatar is a small state which is not acting like small state. In addition, they both are not claiming to be big powers and strictly avoiding revisionism too. So, they are not fitting their roles but also quite avoiding a drastic trample over geo-political lines and adopting revisionism. Yet, together they are overcoming the challenges that they are encountering. Mostly because their reluctance to adopt their hierarchical position. The alliance’s success in Somalia, Libya and Syria, within certain limits; besides surviving a brutal blockade without giving one compromise in the latter. Turkish-Qatari alliance is able to project its combined power to many fronts in MENA and Horn of Africa while competing with big powers and the same-scaled states; such as UAE and Saudi Arabia. This notion is making Turkish-Qatari alliance unusual in geo-political sense.
The negative effects of normalization within GCC to the alliance is questionable. As it is already discussed, it was the Gulf states and Egypt that make Qatar to look for allies outside of the Arab world at the first place. Moreover, albeit there are extensive tribal connections within Gulf, Qatar has already learned that other Gulf states are the primary threat to its survival; unless Qatar is going to compromise and obey the others. Turkey is also enjoying having a prestigious Arab ally with capabilities to enforce a strategy. Yet, the current status of relations is only the beginning.
Due to geographical position, not sharing any border, Turkey and Qatar can’t fulfil the potential of their alliance. To fulfill that potential; a shared border is necessary; this makes a third partner is also necessary. Making Turkey meet with the Gulf is a hard task. Even though conflicting in Syria, Iran’s position against Turkey and Qatar is not as negative as to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s ideological nemesis. Yet, Iran is primary responsible for cutting Turkey from the Gulf right now; especially with its expanding influence over Iraq. The possibility of an Iran-free Iraq has much to offer to the region. A potential Istanbul-Basra or Iskenderun-Basra railway can connect Turkey to Gulf, and Qatar, which will enable a stronger security alliance, development of economic cooperation and most importantly a much-needed third partner: Iraq. With geographical connection and the third partner; it will be much easier and much meaningful for the Turkish-Qatari alliance to institutionalize. A possible international organization constituted by Turkey, Qatar and Iraq will be enough to shape Gulf, Levant and Eastern Mediterranean at the same time; while it also creates new energy routes to Europe and other commercial routes to Gulf markets. Moreover, it can stabilize Iraq with positive economic outcomes and strong security cooperation; while creating a chance to keep China at the bay. Due to the current Iranian influence over Iraq, it looks like a long shot at the time, but it should be also remembered that ongoing popular disturbances in Iraq are mostly have anti-Iranian sentiment and change is always on the table.