Turkey Lines Up Behind Qatar as Gulf Crisis Fault Lines Deepen

  • President Erdogan offers to take on role of peacemaker
  • U.S. support for Saudi Arabia seen forcing Qatar to capitulate

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, center, attends a summit of world leaders in Brussels on May 25, 2017.

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomber

Turkey criticized Saudi-led efforts to isolate ally Qatar, deepening the fault lines in a crisis that has engulfed one of the world’s most strategically important regions.

In defending Qatar, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined a growing list of Middle East nations resisting Saudi Arabia’s push for a united regional front against the gas-rich emirate, whose maverick policies have vexed the kingdom for years. On Wednesday, the head of NATO’s second-largest army offered to try to mend the rift, which has created havoc at airports and seaports, and added new tinder to the already combustible Middle East by challenging the authority of Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

“I’d like to say that we don’t find sanctions against Qatar right,” Erdogan said at a gathering in the Turkish capital, Ankara, late Tuesday. “The most appropriate way for the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to solve their internal issues is through dialogue.”

“We are ready to do everything to resolve other countries’ problems with Qatar,” he added.

Turkey and Qatar have close ties, and Erdogan has sided with the emirate against Saudi Arabia in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Qatar is a major investor in Turkey’s $857 billion economy, with interests in media, financial and defense companies, and Turkey is building a base in the emirate.

Blockade Imposed

Saudi Arabia and three other U.S. allies in the region -- the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain -- escalated tensions that followed President Donald Trump’s Iran-bashing visit to the kingdom last month by severing ties with Qatar on Monday. They accused the Gulf Cooperation Council member of supporting violent Iranian proxies, al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Flights and sea travel to Qatar were barred, land crossings were blockaded, and the U.A.E. even criminalized expressions of sympathy for Qatar on social media, Al Arabiya news channel reported on Wednesday.

Qatar has dismissed the Saudi charges as baseless, casting them as a Saudi ploy for regional hegemony over archrival Iran, the emirate’s ally.

“The main factor here will be the internal machinations of the Qatari royal family and to what extent Saudi succeeds in pressuring them to turn against the Emir,” said Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow at George Washington University’s program on extremism. “The situation has escalated to a point that it is difficult to imagine” Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “backing down without Qatari capitulation or regime change,” he said.

Crucial Backing

Trump gave the Saudis crucial backing on Tuesday, calling the squeeze on Qatar just punishment for the country’s financial support for Islamic extremists.

“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” Trump said on Twitter. “Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!” In two additional tweets he said the action proved that his meeting with Persian Gulf Arab leaders last month was “already paying off.”

U.S. support for the Saudis tilts the scales in their favor, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a global think tank. Although the Saudis haven’t won universal support -- with Turkey and Iran on Qatar’s side and Kuwait and Oman on the sidelines -- “the U.S.-backed camp is big and powerful enough to get Qatar to capitulate,” he said.

“The U.S. provides security for all Gulf countries including Qatar, which makes it well-placed to play a broker/peacemaker role in the conflict,” Unluhisarcikli said. “The more powerful bloc in this spat is the Saudi-led camp, which has put into action sanctions that would have an economic impact on Qatar. Although highly unlikely, if there were to be a military escalation, Qatar knows it will be on the losing side.”

The crisis traces back to 1995, when the father of the current emir of Qatar deposed his own pro-Saudi father and the country began shipping natural gas from the world’s largest reservoir, which it shares with Iran.

Qatar used its gas wealth to back the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and armed factions opposed by the U.A.E. or Saudi Arabia in Libya and Syria. Gas also paid for a global television network, Al Jazeera, which at various times has embarrassed or angered most Middle Eastern governments.

Airport Havoc

The severing of transport links on Tuesday created chaos for businesspeople and tourists in Qatar, a hub for many connecting flights.

Qatar Airways’ 10 check-in counters at the Dubai International Airport displayed boards announcing canceled flights on Tuesday. Some customers showed up at the airport unaware that the carrier suspended service in and out of Dubai.

Zubaida Abdullah, a trader from Sudan who travels to Dubai frequently to buy goods, had to wait a full day to catch a rebooked flight on Bahrain’s Gulf Air to Khartoum. Surrounded by two trolleys of stacked luggage packed with clothing for resale, her elderly mother napped on the floor.

“I don’t see how we will come back to Dubai as much as we used to,” Abdullah said. “It’s a lot cheaper on Qatar Airways than Emirates.”

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