Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Crisis
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis has rumbled on without resolution for nearly two months. What began as a spat over a possibly fabricated speech about Qatari-Iranian relations has released pent-up ambitions and resentments in the region. Saudi Arabia is leading a group of friendly countries against Qatar, its tiny gas-rich neighbour, charging it with sponsoring terrorism. It issued a list of ânon-negotiableâ demands focusing on controlling Qatarâs foreign policy. When these were rejected by Qatar (and viewed as too harsh internationally), the demands were changed to six âprinciplesâ to which all members of the GCC must adhere, including combating terrorism and hate speech, and not interfering in other countriesâ internal politics. The move from demands to principles is a welcome one.
The crisis is not over yet. Given Qatar is under scrutiny in part for its alleged support of non-state actors like Hamas, such an actor could add heat to the smouldering crisis. However, at present the crisis is cooling, with realpolitik and awareness of the wider strategic environment keeping most players calm.
These players are not just found on the Arabian Peninsula. The early demands made by Saudi Arabiaâs coalition included stopping Qatarâs cooperation with both Iran and Turkey. Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the three great powers of the Middle East, competing and cooperating for greater influence. In the early days of the crisis it was breathlessly reported that Turkey had approved laws for the deployment of soldiers to Qatar, and to allow training with the Qatari military (there were already several hundred Turkish troops there). Following the apparent abdication of leadership in the region by Trumpâs White House, great power rivalry appeared to have spilled out of Syria and onto the Peninsula. However, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are not about to go to war over Qatar, despite Saudi Arabiaâs early demands and Turkeyâs rapid reinforcement. We will examine the relationships between Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to understand the wider effects of the crisis.
The Arab Spring drew Qatar and Turkey together. The old regimes which had controlled the Arab World seemed to be collapsing, and between them Turkey and Qatar hoped to increase their influence by supporting groups which previously had not been in a position to govern, such as Egyptâs Muslim Brotherhood (quickly removed by a military which now runs Egypt and resents Qatar and Turkey). The Arab Spring did not transform the region as hoped, but it did reveal to Turkey and Qatar, one at the periphery of the Middle East and one sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that they had much to offer each other. Turkey has stood by Qatar during this recent crisis and Qatar stood by Erdogan during the 2016 attempted coup in Ankara.
Turkey benefits from its closeness with Qatar. Qatar is immensely wealthy (it controls 15% of the worldâs natural gas) and invests heavily in Turkey, as well as buying Turkeyâs manufactured goods. Turkeyâs relationship with the West has suffered recently, thanks to Erdoganâs increasing authoritarianism. It needs friends in high places. Qatarâs enormous natural gas reserves will also warm Turkish homes in time. Finally, Qatarâs good relations with Iran helps Turkey too, even as Iran and Turkey differ in their approach to the Syrian crisis.
Qatar is rich, but tiny and vulnerable. Saudi Arabia occasionally grumbles that Qatarâs borders, drawn under British rule, are illegitimate and some Saudis even dispute whether Qatar is a real country. In 1992 Saudi soldiers took control of a border post between the two. Qatari wargames prepare their tiny military for one thing: the Saudi army invading. Turkey has one of the largest militaries in the world. Erdogan has provided soldiers and food during the crisis and ensuing blockade.
Turkey does not want anyone to âwinâ this crisis. It just wants it over. It cannot compete with Saudi Arabiaâs wealth and influence. It wants to sell Saudi Arabia arms. Though Turkeyâs army is large, it is a long way from the Arabian Peninsula, separated by Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia is one of the USâs closest allies while Turkey is a NATO member. War between the two would be calamitous, and essentially impossible. After all, if having an army base in Qatar was the same as being willing to back it in a fight with Saudi Arabia we might ask why the US also has an enormous military base there. Turkey is showing the flag, demonstrating it is willing to stand by its allies in times of trouble, and hoping diplomacy will win the day. In fact one major reason for the presence of the Turkish base is to provide security for the 2022 World Cup, as well as to keep an eye on Iran, across the Persian Gulf.
In short, Turkey is attempting to find a middle way through the Middle East. It has no desire to alienate powerful Saudi Arabia, but it needs its closer ally Qatar as much. Even if it could cope materially without Qatar, it would be terrible for its international image to abandon the much smaller country to the demands of the larger. By keeping both Gulf nations on relatively friendly terms it also gives Turkey flexibility to handle Iran. Saudi Arabia hates Iran (and views Qatar as the weak link in the anti-Iran Gulf Cooperation Council) while Qatarâs friendship with it allows a softer approach. Iran has successfully kept Assad in power in Syria and has growing influence in Iraq, both of which border Turkey. A range of options to manage Iran is vital to Turkeyâs national interest - Saudi Arabiaâs muscle and Qatarâs influence.
We should consider this good news: the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis is cooling. Actions taken are symbolic, and the chances of violence are low. Turkeyâs honour is satisfied by its show of support while Saudi Arabiaâs six principles allow it to save face following the rejection of its 13 demands by Qatar, which in turn has managed to maintain independence. These positive developments also ensure Iran does not have a free hand in the region while Turkey and Saudi Arabia distract each other. In the absence of peace, three powers checking each other might be the next best thing.