Turkish-Qatari Relations in a Post-Conflict Neighborhood

Athina Tesfa YOHANNES
02 January 2012
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The “Arab Spring” that arose in December 2010 hasn’t left the resource-rich Gulf countries untouched, as Kuwait, Bahrain, and Yemen have experienced subsequent unrest in the form of protests, riots and even battles. Both Turkey and Qatar have played a pivotal role within the revolutions, particularly in the arena of conflict resolution, and have also strengthened their bilateral relations as a result.

Turkey and Qatar have made rather remarkable respective gains in the last ten years. Both countries are emerging economic powerhouses in the region. Turkey’s GDP growth rate in 2010 was unprecedented in the country’s history, and 2011 was marked by even higher growth rates, with the posting of 12% growth in this year’s first quarter. (1) They have also taken bold steps in diplomacy, as seen by Turkey’s increasingly confident foreign policy strategy and Qatar’s growing need to make itself a respected regional leader. Interestingly enough, the two countries have grown closer despite their differences in makeup. Turkey’s 73 million strong population live in a secular environment affected by the ever-evolving changes to the country’s democratic arrangement. Meanwhile, Qatar’s citizens (estimated at 1 million native Qataris, and even more foreign workers) has been run by the Al-Thani family in a monarchy that’s lasted since the mid-1800s. The country’s unique legal system is run by a system of Adlia (Western-rooted) and Sharia-based laws. In addition, only recently has Qatar implemented numerous reforms in women’s rights, universal suffrage (on the local level), instituted a parliament, and created a constitution, mainly with the help of Sheikha Mozah, the progressive second wife of the ruling Emir Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani. Both countries also play host to American military air bases, Turkey’s Incirlik base and Qatar’s Al Uldeid military base (which is largely funded being by their royal family).


The Arab Spring Continues…but Not in Qatar

However, the recent political reshuffling in the Middle East has highlighted the important roles of these two countries, and lends opportunities to mutual cooperation bilaterally and abroad. While Turkey’s assistance in the case of Libya’s civil war to uproot Col. Kadaffi’s fallen regime would not been seen as extraordinary given the Turkey’s foreign policy trajectory, Qatar stepped to the plate in being vocal about intra-Middle Eastern involvement stunned many in the region. Turkey, being a NATO member, switched its position from supporting Kadaffi once the now-deceased general turned violent against his citizens, and offered assistance to not only Libya, but Tunisia and Egypt as well. Interestingly, Qatar offered its fighter planes for the battle in Libya, catching the attention of regional leaders. In neighboring island kingdom Bahrain, Qatar also offered troops to help restore calm after Arab Spring-oriented protests in the country. Within the Middle East, Qatar hasn’t won many allies within the Arab League due to its stances that are perceived as ‘pro-Western,’ especially since the country hosts a U.S. military base. However, given Qatar’s size, the American presence gives a sense of security to the quickly developing country, while encouraging the nation to employ democratic schemes within the monarchy. Often, Doha-based Al Jazeera television network has even been seen as a soft-power ploy by Qatar to question fellow states in the region. However, especially given their special relationships with Israel, both Turkey and Qatar must be selective in their regional actions, so as to not be seen as ‘puppets of the West’ by regional peers.


Qatar has, however, managed to avoid the protests that have rocked the region. The calm highlights the strength of the Qatari economy and social benefits given to the citizens, as most Qataris enjoy a relatively high standard of living, where citizens are exempt from taxes, and enjoy high quality (free) health and education benefits from the state. Despite actions perceived as ‘pro-West,’ Qatar has so far encouraged Western officials to not diminish the significance of post-Arab Spring governments, as they are elected through the will of the people, no matter how ‘Islamist’ they may seem. The Qatari government has noted that many of the ‘Islamist’ parties in question, such as Ennahada Party of Tunisia or the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, have declared strategies to tackle unemployment, education, democracy, and other such topical ills that plagued the stale regimes of the recent past. Throughout the years, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has managed to hold the faith of Egyptian citizens, given the social reforms it set in place by setting up hospitals, orphanages, and schools since as early as the 1940s. Turkey, run by a moderately Islam-oriented party itself, has also shown support of post-Arab Spring states, urging the countries to embrace secularism as a path to harmonizing modernization and values. The democratic potential of these budding state parties will be seen in coming years; meanwhile, the will of the people, and the slated reforms to take place, can hardly be argued with from critics outside of the region.


Mirrored Strategies: Turkish-Qatari Relations

Turkey’s Doha embassy was established nearly 30 years ago, and despite Turkish presidential visits to Qatar since 1986, genuine bilateral relations only geared up in 2001. In 2008, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the two countries, signaling a green light for increased investment between the two countries. At the end of 2008, the volume of trade between them hit $1.2 billion for the year. By 2010, given current world economic conditions, trade volume dipped to $340 million, (2) with imports and exports relatively balanced. Trade between the two countries has also been buoyed by tourism in Turkey, with the establishment of ‘Islam’ friendly resorts in Turkey’s southern beach regions. In 2008, Turkey was also named the first ‘strategic partner’ outside of the Gulf region to the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia). Since Turkey is already an observer in the Arab League, the move was critical in cementing Turkey-Qatari-GCC relations in terms of pursuing goals of regional stability that will spark further investment within the region. Turkey’s desire to turn the Gulf Region in a free trade zone becomes more viable as links between the region, and particularly Qatar strengthen.


An arena of mutual cooperation has also stemmed from cooperative diplomatic efforts in the region. Although the negotiations talks regarding the Hariri Tribunal in Lebanon ultimately failed in January 2011, Qatar and Turkey’s role in the issue is telling. Later in the year, both countries also offered to play host to the Palestinians released as a result of the prisoner ‘swap’ deal in Israel. Qatar’s voice in the Arab League, and Turkey’s voice to the West, showed regional initiative in countries resulting from Arab Spring turmoil.


Like Turkey, Qatar seeks a bigger role on the world stage, and for a small state, has made remarkable headway in the process. In addition to diplomatic cooperation with states like Turkey, Qatar has also reached out to other regional conflicts in Yemen, and the Western Sahara. In addition to assisting with WHO’s (World Health Organization) humanitarian assistance in Somalia, Qatar has also served as mediators between the government of Sudan and Darfur rebels (although the rebels eventually refused to sign the Qatari sponsored agreement). Qatar invests over $1 billion in Sudan, and recently inaugurated a key highway they funded between Sudan and Eritrea to encourage trade. It also helped negotiate talks between Eritrea and Djibouti’s border flare-up, sending troops to monitor the peace between the countries. Qatar has even lent its assistance to countries as far away as Indonesia, setting up billion of dollars in fund to assist the country with further building infrastructure.


The Israeli Factor: Turkey and Qatar’s Declining Relationship with Israel

While Turkey’s relationship with Israel has hit a historic low point since the Mavi Marmara incident, Qatar, much to the dismay of its neighbors, also had a functional relationship with Israel for many years. However, with Qatar’s support of the Palestinian cause (such as its support behind Palestine’s U.N. bid) and Hamas, the Qatari-Israeli relationship has also grinded to a halt, much like Turkey’s relationship with Israel. In the past, Qatar’s unique position allowed it to offer multiple attempts to mediate peace between Arab League states and Israel, particularly when tensions flared in 2006 between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. But Qatar was critical of Israel, and along with Turkey, contributed troops to the U.N.’s peacekeeping force in Lebanon. In 2008, Qatar managed a diplomatic win through the ‘Doha Agreement,’ which entailed mediating a unity government that joined various political and religious fractions within Lebanon, offering multi-million dollar development assistance package as a bonus. Although Sheik Hamad offering to broker an agreement between Hamas and Israel, the Gaza War later broke out in 2008. In 2009, Qatar played an instrumental role in calling an emergency meeting of the Arab League regarding the Gaza War. Gaza would later signal a sharp decline in both Qatar and Turkey’s interactions with Israel. Qatar’s Al Jazeera network has also served as a sore spot for Qatari-Israeli relations, as the station is perceived as ‘anti-Israel’ in Tel Aviv. Turkey and Qatar have both been placed in arrangements where they’ve been able to maintain ties with so-called ‘alienated’ states, like Israel, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. While their geopolitic positioning may warrant them these unique roles out of necessity, the two countries have demonstrated genuine efforts to maintain relative calm in the region.


Establishing itself as a neutral negotiator has brought mixed success, but nonetheless, Qatar (like Turkey) has defied traditional logic about capacities of small states by cementing its role as not only a regional player, but a world player.


Alliances Take Energy, in all respects: Energy Security and Cooperation Efforts

Turkey makes no secret of needing to secure energy in its politically volatile neighborhood. A top 20 growing economy, Turkey still lacks the energy resources needed to fuel its growing economy. Turkey’s energy sources are divided into three imported products, with gas, oil, and coal each making up nearly 30% of Turkey’s total energy consumption. Turkey’s energy strategy derives from the new regional order emerging, with itself as one of the main players. Through regional dialogue meant to enhance regional peace, both Turkey and Qatar aim to use multilateral actions (like economic interdependence) (3) to maintain calm in the region. One example can be seen in Turkey’s establishment of visa free schemas with neighboring countries. But more importantly, Turkey has offered to serve as host to various proposed energy pipelines through its territory, such as the EU-sponsored Nabucco project and the Trans-Caspian pipeline.


Meanwhile, Qatar sits on some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, and while being its top income resource, the nation also makes considerable income from its oil wealth as well. A pipeline between Qatar and Turkey has been proposed, through LNG (liquefied natural gas) contracts in the works. Qatar also seeks to diversify its investments in the region, understanding that oil and gas wealth without the proper economic development, could spell for economic disaster. Qatar also seeks to secure food and water security, given its size and arid weather conditions. Turkey’s strength in exports of food products, coupled with the necessary human resources that Qatar needs for construction projects throughout the country, provide a solid foundation of future potential deals that can be made with Qatar in the realm of energy. Turkey’s exports have also driven GDP growth in the past few economic quarters. However, in terms of energy, securing pipeline routes through territory in (southern) Iraq and Saudi Arabia (perhaps even Kuwait) will prove to be challenges both nations will need to overcome to secure energy flows.


Africa: Why Turkey and Qatar Should Cooperate in the “African Scramble: Part II”

Qatar has ventured into the Horn of Africa for help with peace negotiations and investments, helping fellow Arab League member Sudan and attempting to safeguard the Red Sea from turmoil in Yemen and Somalia. Turkey has also opened its routes to Africa, opening at least 16 embassies, and setting their goal for nearly 30 embassies throughout the continent. Turkey became an observer in the African Union in 2005, and has become increasingly involved on a bilateral level with various African countries, in the realms of investment and trade, education, and humanitarian aid. In terms of regional trade agreements, Turkey has expressed an interest in the EAC, or East African Community (comprised of 5 east African countries), wanting to invest in agriculture, infrastructure and mining to stimulate job growth and exports. (4)


Turkey and Qatar should both additionally seek active involvement in COMESA, or the Common Market for East and South Africa. COMESA, a larger regional organization, encompasses EAC member states, and those of the SADC (Southern Africa Development Community) regional organization. COMESA includes nearly 20 (generally east) African countries and serves as an organized excellent entry into Africa’s markets. COMESA also seeks to become a customs union (with a common currency), mirroring the goals of ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), which has 15 West African member states. ECOWAS hopes to introduce a common currency, the ‘eco,’ in West Africa by 2015. The GCC is also expected to have a common currency within the coming years.


With Qatar’s buying power, and Turkey’s increased involvement (particularly through its development agency TIKA), African markets provide both countries with opportunities for mutual benefits of trade, in addition to brokering regional conflicts as neutral mediators with little to no colonial ties to the continent. Turkey’s TIKA agency has offices in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Senegal, and Qatar’s financial support could be partially channeled through the organization’s existing networks. As seen by China’s success in African investment, Africa also plays host to many of the world’s fastest growing economies, including (but not limited to): Ghana, Mozambique, Eritrea, Tanzania, Congo, Ethiopia, Zambia, and Nigeria. In addition to helping Qatar potentially secure the food security in needs through agriculture, African markets will also respond to proper investment-led diplomacy, at which Qatar excels. Qatar heavily participates in South-South cooperation, establishing development funds and providing assistance by cancelling debt for the most indebted countries. The Qatar Foundation has also made significant gains in the arena of solar energy, and this is another energy arena in which Africa could be a mutual field of cooperation with Turkey, which has had successful implementation of solar energy panels in its southern coastal cities.


Diplomatic Minds Think Alike: Many Roads for Cooperation

Turkey and Qatar have each flexed their diplomatic muscle to mixed success, but have held their ground as regional influences in many respects. While they may seem to be categorical opposites, both nations share a mutual desire to utilize bilateral diplomatic efforts (supported by regional organizations) towards securing investment and development in the region. As long as both countries choose their diplomatic ‘battles’ carefully, this trade-based relationship will continue to flourish under healthy regional conditions.



(1) Turksat, Turkish Statistical Institute. “Growth Rates: Constant.”

(2)Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Turkey-Qatar Economic and Trade Relations.”

(3)Babali, Tuncay.“Regional Energy Equations and Turkish Foreign Policy: The Middle East and the CIS.” Page 149.

(4)Sezibera, Dr. Richard, EAC Secretary General. “Turkey, EAC Discuss Business Relations.” The New Times: Rwanda’s First Daily.” Dr. Sander Gurbuz, Turkey’s EAC representative and ambassador to Tanzania.

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