Understanding Turkish Foreign Policy: The Role of Qatar

Many experts have thus far labeled President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy direction as Neo-Ottomanism. They did so by observing the Erdogan administration’s pursuit of influence in the former Ottoman regions in the Middle East and North Africa (i.e. MENA) through soft power[1], coercive diplomacy and brute force. Nevertheless, Turkey’s partnership with Qatar casts doubt on the ad hoc Neo-Ottomanism interpretations. It rather seems that Turkey has not been independently pursuing its foreign policy ambitions but toeing with Qatar’s interests.

Turkey and Qatar already had close militaristic relations starting from 2012. In March 2012, Turkey agreed to sell 10 mini drones to Qatar.[2] Approximately 4 months after this deal, on July 3rd, the two countries signed an undisclosed military cooperation deal.[3] This happened the same day when the Egyptian Armed Forces led by El Sisi overthrew the democratically-elected pro-Muslim Brotherhood (i.e. Ikhwan) leader Morsi. From this time until 2018, the relations were such that Qatar made investments on various sectors of the Turkish economy[4], and Turkey reinforced Qatar’s national defense.[5]

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates placed an embargo on Qatar on the accusations that the latter sponsored terrorist groups. At the same time, the Trump era US foreign policy made it clear that the Gulf countries could not take American military protection for granted.[6] Thus, the oil and gas rich Gulf countries sought alternative allies to boost their security. Shortly after the blockade against Qatar, the Turkish parliament approved a bill of sending troops to Qatar.[7] The bill also aimed to further modernize and support Qatar’s army.

Turkey’s 2018 currency crisis changed the nature of the Qatari-Turkish relations. As the international investors fled Turkey, the Erdogan administration’s need for foreign reserves became an insurmountable problem. It was around this time that Qatar started to gain some financial leverage over Turkey with its surprising surge in investments. Shortly after the crisis, the Qatari government promised a $15 billion swap deal in an effort to protect the Turkish currency.[8] A month after this promise, the Qatar Sheikh Hamid bin Khalifa Al Thani gifted Erdogan an airplane worth more than $400 million.[9] In addition, 5 major Qatar conglomerates decided to invest $300 million to the Turkish economy.[10] It seemed like Qatar was trying to keep the Turkish economy afloat to the best of its abilities – but not as a completely benign gesture.

Qatar’s economic support of Turkey was not a benign act. The years 2018 and 2019 showed a pattern of Qatar increasing its investments in Turkey, and Turkey increasing its support of the pro-Sunni militant groups in Syria, and Libya. Following the 2018 Qatari investment surge in Turkey, in January 2019, the Turkish armed forces supplied and accompanied the Sunni militants in their invasion of the Idlib region of Syria.[11] Idlib consequently became a haven for dangerous Sunni militants under Turkish protection.

Qatari investments in Turkey continued to increase in 2019 coincidently with Turkey’s greater overseas involvement. According to an August 2019 report, Qatar accounted for the largest share of FDI in Turkey with 19 percent.[12] Then, in October 2019, Turkey executed its fourth operation in Syria – the Peace Spring with again the Sunni militants. By November 2019, Qatari investments in Turkey approached $22 billion.[13] This was also the time when Turkey entered Libya on behalf of the Sarraj (i.e. the pro-Ikhwan) faction of the civil war-torn country.

We observe a generalizable pattern here: Qatar kept investing in the Turkish economy unlike many other foreign investors. Then, Turkey subsequently sponsored Sunni militant groups often in support of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood factions overseas. As a consequence, Turks alienated the West further. Without Qatar, this would not have been easy.

Let us put it differently. According to data from the World Bank, Turkey’s GDP per capita continued to decrease from $12,519 in 2013 to $9,042 in 2019.[14]. Almost no study in international relations finds that deteriorating economic conditions lead to increased overseas proactivism.[15] Thus, either Turkey is a complete exception, or Qatar is using its investments in Turkey to ensure President Erdogan’s cooperation.

Chances are strong that there is no coincidence between increased Turkish proactivism overseas, and Qatari investments in Turkey. To reinforce this claim, we ought to discuss one additional factor, a private military company called SADAT. The operations of SADAT highlight Qatar’s interests in leveraging the current Turkish foreign policy.

Similar to Russia[16], Turkey has been delegating part of its military operations to a private military company (PMC) in the MENA region. This company is called SADAT, and SADAT provides various Muslim nations with military training and support.[17] It was founded in February 2012 by Adnan Tanriverdi – a former Turkish general who was ousted in 1997 due to his political Islamic leanings. Although Tanriverdi denies it[18], SADAT is suspected of hiring and training Sunni youth from Europe and Central Asia to fight in Syria and Libya.[19]

At first, contracting military operations to a PMC may nowadays seem ordinary for any nation that has strong foreign policy ambitions. The US, Great Britain and Russia all have PMCs of their own.[20] So why not Turkey? Yet, there is a particular issue with SADAT. According to Russian media sources, SADAT and its training facilities are financed by Qatar.[21]

Russian claims are just an accusation, but not a nonsensical one. Qatar, an economically impressive nation, has security problems due to the rest of the Gulf countries. Then it turns to Turkey: a country with high military capacity which also potentially has access to a large pool of Sunni militants thanks to SADAT. All Turkey needs, especially from 2018 and on is fuel – i.e. economic support. Under these circumstances, it makes sense that Qatar provides SADAT with finances.

All in all, we do not see a Turkish-Qatari alliance of equal partners.[22] The two nation’s alignment resembles more to a relationship where a country sends another foreign aid and relieves the latter of some of its fiscal burdens. As a consequence, the latter is more cooperative with the former, and has relatively greater resources to initiate conflicts with others than before.[23] It is for this reason that we observe the recent Turkish foreign policy agenda almost perfectly aligning with Muslim Brotherhood interests in the MENA at the cost of alienating the West and the NATO.

The Future:

As long as the United States continues the Trump-era policies of abandoning the Gulf countries to their fate, Qatar and the others will seek questionable allies. Consequently, we can think of two possible future scenarios with regards to the Turkish foreign policy. First, Qatari investors continue to invest in the Turkish economy. As a consequence, Turkey continues to afford its proactive foreign policy agenda in the Middle East and North Africa – which causes the continuation of the civil wars in this region and the refugee flows.[24]

The second possible scenario is Qatar pursuing greater independence in its foreign policy goals by decreasing its investments in the Turkish economy. This way, Turkey’s capability of sponsoring Sunni militants and marching into countries like Syria and Libya decreases. Consequently, with less foreign interference, the expected duration of both Syrian and Libyan civil wars decreases.

There are two reasons to predict that we may soon see Qatar losing its interest in exercising its foreign policy goals via Turkey. First, Turkey and SADAT are becoming a liability that could further deteriorate Qatar’s already-sour relations with the West. Recently, Turkey was accused of deploying SADAT-trained Sunni militants to fight alongside Azerbaijan against Armenia.[25] In addition, President Erdogan recently warned Germany and Netherlands about the safety of their citizens on the streets – potentially threatening the two European nations by relying on SADAT’s network.[26] This aggression can make Turkey seem like too dangerous of an ally to have for Qatar.

In fact, we are already seeing Qatar’s weakening support for Turkey in the international arena. In its Eastern Mediterranean Crisis with Greece, Turkey failed to enjoy Qatar’s support. This could be because Qatar does not want Turkey to enjoy economic independence by extracting natural gas of its own. Alternatively, it could be that Qatar rather seeks to distance itself from Turkey, worrying that the Erdogan administration is becoming a loose cannon in the international arena. One way or another, losing Qatar’s interest can translate into Turkey losing significant fuel in its proactive foreign policy agenda.

There are some signs that Qatar is investing more and more to an independent armed force, instead of relying on others. As the CIA World Factbook indicates, Qatar is expected to buy additional aircraft and large-scale naval vessels from Italy and the UK.[27] This could suggest that Qatar is less interested in depending on Turkey, and more interested in using its own military power. Thus, Qatar likely will refrain from associating itself with Turkey to not alienate the European countries that supply the Qatari military inventory.

Overall, Turkey’s proactive foreign policy agenda not only cherished Qatar’s financial support but also leverage. This translated into a noticeable Qatar-Turkey joint operation in the MENA region on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, circumstances suggest that this partnership may soon come to an end if Erdogan continues to threaten the West and becomes too big of a liability for Qatar. In this case, we may soon see a decrease in Turkish interference in the MENA region.

[1] https://www.jstor.org/stable/1148580

[2] https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-sells-mini-drones-to-qatar-15862

[3] https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-and-qatar-sign-army-cooperation-deal-24593

[4] See https://www.alternatifbank.com.tr/en/about-us/alternatif-bank/who-we-are and https://www.dailysabah.com/economy/2017/02/16/gross-fdi-inflows-in-turkey-hit-17-month-high-in-december

[5] See https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-06-07/turkey-fast-tracks-qatar-troops-bill-amendment-in-symbolic-move and https://www.armyrecognition.com/april_2017_global_defense_security_news_industry/turkish_company_bmc_will_deliver_1500_amazon_4x4_armoured_vehicles_to_qatar_police_and_army_11504172.html

[6] https://www.bakerinstitute.org/media/files/files/25b245c0/bi-brief-082520-cme-gulfstates.pdf

[7] https://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler-turkiye-40191045 and https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-06-07/turkey-fast-tracks-qatar-troops-bill-amendment-in-symbolic-move 

[8] https://ahvalnews.com/turkey-economy/qatari-15-billion-package-turkey-fast-track-report

[9] https://www.memri.org/tv/emir-qatar-tamim-thani-gift-luxury-plane-turkey-erdogan

[10] https://www.dailysabah.com/economy/2018/09/03/qatars-five-major-conglomerates-turn-to-turkey-for-investments

[11] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42765697

[12] https://www.dailysabah.com/economy/2019/08/21/foreign-direct-investment-records-63-rise-in-first-half

[13] https://thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/29/10/2019/Turkish-envoy-Qatari-investments-in-Turkey-approaching-$22bn

[14] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?locations=TR

[15] See https://books.google.com.tr/books/about/A_Theory_of_Foreign_Policy.html?id=OHa-1n8zLigC&redir_esc=y

[16] https://russianpmcs.csis.org/

[17] https://www.sadat.com.tr/en/about-us/our-mission.html

[18] https://www.sadat.com.tr/en/about-us/news/467-sadat-silahli-bir-orgut-degil-askeri-danismanlik-sirketidir-en.htmlCITE

[19] https://www.aei.org/foreign-and-defense-policy/middle-east/has-sadat-become-erdogans-revolutionary-guards/

[20] https://medium.com/smartaim-tech/war-for-money-leading-private-military-companies-of-the-world-eab9f9fe2de8

[21] https://riafan.ru/1247369-fan-raskryvaet-detali-marshruta-terrora-iz-turcii-v-liviyu and https://www.evrensel.net/haber/396673/turkiye-rusya-gerginligi-artinca-rus-medyasi-dosyalari-acti

[22] https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2019/12/11/brothers-in-arms/ 

[23] https://books.google.com.tr/books/about/A_Theory_of_Foreign_Policy.html?id=OHa-1n8zLigC&redir_esc=y

[24] This prediction hinges on scholarly work that identifies a strong positive association between outsider interference and civil wars. See https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1540-5907.2006.00221.x

[25] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/azerbaijan-armenia-turkey-nagorno-karabakh/2020/10/13/2cdca1e6-08bf-11eb-8719-0df159d14794_story.html

[26] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/turkey-erdogan-germany-netherlands-warning-europeans-not-walk-safely-a7642941.html and https://www.aei.org/foreign-and-defense-policy/middle-east/has-sadat-become-erdogans-revolutionary-guards/ 

[27] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/qa.html

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