Erdogan's Gulf Crisis Trip Signals Conflicting Turkish Interests

  • Visit comes as Turkey builds up military base in Qatar
  • Turkey wants to ease tensions in region, defense minister says

Erdogan to Attempt to Ease Gulf Tensions

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will wade deeper into the Gulf crisis with trips to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar from Sunday, diplomacy that may be as much about protecting his nation’s regional interests as finding a way out of the six-week impasse.

Ankara has been a crucial ally of Qatar since it was isolated by a four-nation, Saudi-led coalition on June 5, shipping it food and expanding its military presence there ahead of joint military drills later this month. In a sign it’s looking to broaden that role, Defense Minister Fikri Isik said Erdogan’s two-day visit to major trade partners would aim to “ease tensions rather than fueling instability,” while reiterating that Qatar’s sovereignty must be respected.

Fikri Isik

Photographer: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

“We are saying that primarily Saudi Arabia and all other countries should sit down at a table and solve this through peaceful dialogue,” Isik said in the capital on Monday. “To that end, Turkey is ready to make any contribution.”

Diplomatic efforts to end the standoff have so far failed. After four days of shuttle diplomacy between Gulf capitals last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the dispute -- which pits longstanding U.S. economic and security allies against each other -- may last “quite a while.” The sides still refuse to speak to each other directly and are no closer to resolving the 13 key demands made after the crisis started.

They include Qatar downgrading its cordial ties with chief Saudi foe Iran, ending the Turkish military presence on its soil, and stopping its backing for the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group that has been in the crosshairs of the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies since the Arab revolts at the start of this decade. Qatar has rebuffed the demands and has also denied the bloc’s allegation that it funds terrorism.

Qatar Trade

Turkey also has a lot at stake. While it, too, backs the Brotherhood and is a major recipient of Qatari investment, Saudi Arabia and fellow alliance member United Arab Emirates bought $8.6 billion of Turkish exports last year, almost 20 times as much as Qatar.

Read More: Saudis Are After the Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkey’s In the Way.

“Turkey has already been excluded as a main mediator and broker in the Qatar crisis because of the unwavering, expanded support it has extended to Doha and due to its position on the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas,” Anthony Skinner, a director with U.K.-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft, said by email. “That said, President Erdogan has a clear interest in doing what he can to break the impasse and to ensure political, trade and commercial ties with Saudi Arabia are not eroded.”

Speaking during a trip to the U.K., U.A.E. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said he saw little hope of a quick fix to the spat. He said that the alliance -- which also includes Egypt and Bahrain -- needed a clear signal that Qatar, the world’s largest producer of liquefied natural gas, is willing to reexamine its position regarding extremism and terrorism.

Need ‘Trust’

“The situation we want to move to is a neighbor that we can trust, a neighbor that is transparent, that we can do business with,” Gargash said in an interview outside parliament in central London. “This is not a crisis where we are looking for a quick fix,” he said. “We need a solution that will stick.”

Ilnur Cevik, a chief adviser to Erdogan, said by phone on Tuesday that Turkey was seeking to join the dialogue as “an impartial player.”

Mehmet Sahin, an analyst of international relations at Ankara’s Gazi University, said he expected the Turkish president “to stress that the Arab world should unite against the real threats from Iran as well as regional turmoil, including Syria.”

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