Erdogan travels to Gulf region to help mend rift between Qatar and its neighbors

Turkish President Erdogan has arrived in Saudi Arabia on a three-nation tour that will put his diplomatic skills to the test. He must preserve the alliance with Qatar, while not jeopardizing good relations with Riyadh.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has met with Saudi Arabia's King Salman Sunday afternoon in the Saudi city of Jiddah. It is Erdogan's first stop in a two-day visit to the region where Erdogan is eager increase Turkey's influence, and settle the growing tensions that have erupted among the Arab neighbors.  

Politics | 16.07.2017

 On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, imposed a comprehensive blockade of the peninsula, and accused the government of backing extremism and fostering ties with their Shiite rival Iran.

Doha denies the allegations and has been strongly backed by Ankara throughout the standoff. 

Erdogan will have to provide a more subdued follow-up to the strong signals he has sent out in recent weeks. His itinerary suggests that he is willing to do so. 

In Riyadh, questions may be asked, such as why has Turkey so clearly sided with the small emirate in the Saudi-Qatar conflict?

Read more: All you need to know about the Qatar crisis

Furthermore, Erdogan declared that the blockade violated international law and was an attack on the "sovereign rights of a state."

Qatar - Gulf Cooperation Council disputes over the years

Severed ties, broken trust

Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt cut ties with Qatar on June 5, accusing it of backing extremism and fostering ties with their Shiite rival, Iran. Doha denies the claim. SA and its allies also imposed sanctions against Doha and presented Qatar with a list of demands. Kuwait has been trying to mediate, and several Western diplomats have toured the region to defuse the row.

Qatar - Gulf Cooperation Council disputes over the years

Instability haunts Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

Back on March 5, 2014, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain suspended ties with Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has been labelled a terrorist organization. Qatar was accused of breaching the 2013 GCC security agreement. Later in November that year, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain agreed to return their ambassadors to Doha after eight months of tension and frozen relations.

Qatar - Gulf Cooperation Council disputes over the years

Arab Spring and the GCC

The Arab Spring in 2011 did not lead to uprisings in GCC member states, apart from Bahrain, which crushed Shiite protests with Saudi military support. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have long been concerned Iran could cause unrest among their Shiite populations.

Qatar - Gulf Cooperation Council disputes over the years

Pipeline disputes

Relations between Saudi Arab and Qatar hit a low spot in 2006 after Riyadh withdrew its approval for Qatar’s plans to build a gas pipeline to Kuwait. In the same year, Saudi Arabia also protested against a planned pipeline for taking Qatari gas to the UAE and Oman. In 2005 there had also been Saudi protests against a plan to build a bridge linking Qatar to the UAE.

Qatar - Gulf Cooperation Council disputes over the years

Border clash

In 1992, three people were killed in a border clash between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Qatar claimed that Saudi Arabia had attacked the border post at Khafus. Saudi Arabia responded that the clash had taken place on Saudi territory.

Qatar - Gulf Cooperation Council disputes over the years

Border dispute

In 1965 an agreement was reached on where the border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia would lie. But the issue was not completely settled until decades later. After three years of wrangling, the two countries signed a border demarcation agreement in 1996. It took more than a decade after this for it to be fully implemented.

Qatar - Gulf Cooperation Council disputes over the years

Territorial disputes

In 1991, Doha took a border dispute with Bahrain over the Hawar Islands to the United Nations International Court of Justice. Armed confrontation between the two countries had been narrowly avoided in 1986 due to timely Saudi intervention. Later, the ICJ ruled in favor of Bahrain. Qatar was awarded the Janan Islands.

But his aim now is to see the crisis resolved as quickly as possible. "No one has any interest in prolonging this crisis any more," Erdogan said in Istanbul before departing.

A defensive strategy in Riyadh

Erdogan will have to explain his stance and decisions in Riyadh. Günther Meyer, the University of Mainz's Middle East expert, said he expects Erdogan will follow a defensive strategy during the talks. He believes that Turkey will be aiming to avoid confrontation because it maintains very close economic relations with Saudi Arabia.

"Erdogan will be trying to prevent economic disadvantages resulting from the close ties with Qatar," he said. In this respect, Meyer said he thinks Erdogan will try to help soften the crisis when he is in Riyadh.

Citing anonymous experts, the Turkish daily newspaper, Daily Sabah, has said that on this trip, Erdogan will declare the dispute "untenable and artificial, and harmful to the interests of all concerned."

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The alliance with Qatar

Nevertheless, Erdogan is in a difficult situation. For many years, Turkey has had a close relationship with Qatar. After the coup attempt in Turkey last year, the emirate sent 150 soldiers to support Erdogan.

Meyer believes that the Erdogan family and Qatar's ruling Al Thani family maintain close economic relations. Also important is their shared support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Further to that, Turkey's only military base in the Gulf region is in Qatar. "And now, 5,000 Turkish soldiers are being sent to Qatar, so Turkey has a significant position as a supporter of Qatar," he told DW.

Good relations with Riyadh urgently needed

With these policies, Turkey has also sought to position itself as a political player in the Gulf region. Like Qatar, it also uses the Muslim Brotherhood as a Sunni counterbalance to Wahhabism, the Saudi state religion. But this conflict is not about religion, it is a question of power. Qatar and Turkey present themselves as states that cultivate a - comparatively - liberal version of Islam, through which they hope to attract the loyalty of other countries committed to this liberalism.

Nevertheless, Turkey could orient itself more toward Saudi Arabia than Qatar in the long term, says Richard Burchill, research director at the Abu Dhabi-based think tank TRENDS. Apart from the military base, Qatar provides no long-term benefits to Turkey. It gives Turkey a certain amount of power in the region.

"Over the long term I can't see Turkey essentially standing by Qatar. Turkey has been spending a significant amount of time, trying to gain the support in the alliance and the friendship with the UAE and Saudi Arabia," Burchill told DW.

Avoiding further isolation

Burchill said that this is necessary because Turkey is currently in a difficult situation.

"Relationships with the EU right now are very fraught and fragmented. Relationships with Russia and the war in Syria are again very fragmented. And Turkey and Iran are not getting on at the most basic levels either," he said.

Erdogan's Gulf trip will, above all, be about protecting Turkey's long-term interests, and preserving good relations with Saudi Arabia, despite maintaining solidarity with Qatar.

Erdogan is widely expected to succeed in this task. If the plan were to fail, Turkey would have one less partner and at the moment, it can hardly afford that. Erdogan urgently needs political friends.

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