Interview with Birol Baskan, specialist of the relationships between Turkey and Qatar

samedi, 29 avril 2017 16:05

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Birol Baskan is Assistant Professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He has published in numerous academic journals such as Politics and Religion, Insight Turkey, Arab Studies Quarterly, Comparative Political Studies, and International Sociology. He is the author of From Religious Empires to Secular States (2014) and Turkey and Qatar in the Tangled Geopolitics of the Middle East (2016).

1. The relations between Qatar and Turkey are marked by a solid alliance that has been gradually woven over the last 15 years with a dramatic acceleration of these since the beginning of the Arab Spring. In your opinion, what are the main elements that motivate this relationship? And what are its limits?

As I recount in my book, in the post-9/11 period Turkey and Qatar had become active players in the Middle East. The regional context was conducive and the two states had internal reasons to be active. Both states had not only employed similar foreign policy strategies, but also come to align their positions on almost all major regional issues. The military coup in Egypt further brought Turkey and Qatar closer as the two states became increasingly isolated in the region. Even though Turkey and Qatar were able to partly break this isolation, the relations between the two have already gained its own inertia and internal dynamics and therefore grown stronger.

So, the relations have come to this point over a decade or so, during which a lot has changed. Some factors that were once at work in cementing the relations had long gone. Some have remained and new ones have come along. It is difficult to summarize all. If I focus on those factors that are at work now, I would say geopolitics.

The regional isolation both Turkey and Qatar faced in the immediate aftermath of the military coup in Egypt is still there. Only with Saudi Arabia their relations have significantly improved. Relations with the UAE, despite the improvement, are still troubled. Even with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar must have been aware that the relations have improved thanks to the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and of the Houthis in Yemen and are therefore very much pragmatism-driven on the side of Saudi Arabia. The relations can sour again as soon as Saudi Arabia’s priorities change.

Turkey and Qatar are not equally exposed to any fall-out with Saudi Arabia though. Turkey can easily detach itself from the Middle East as it had done in the past and pay more of its attention to the EU, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Russia. For Qatar this is not easy. Geography is critical here. Turkey is on the margin of the Arab World. From a security perspective only Syria and Iraq critically matter for Turkey.  The rest matters, but not much.

Qatar is not on the margin. It is part of the Arab World and cannot easily detach itself. Any fall out with Saudi Arabia might also pose a security risk. As long as Qatar does not go back to the pre-Hamad foreign policy of fully aligning with Saudi Arabia, this is going to be the case. For Qatar Turkey is a regional power that credibly counter-balances its larger and more populous neighbors, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

For Turkey Qatar does not play a similar role. But, Qatar is still a valuable ally for Turkey. This is because Turkey’s economy is extremely dependent on international capital, but has been facing difficulties especially in recent years. At a time international investors have become more reluctant to invest in Turkey’s economy, Qatar has not been. For Turkey it is critical that Qatar keeps investing in Turkey. But, it should be kept in mind, Turkey is too big an economy for Qatar. There is a limit to what Qatar can offer.

More critically, however, the relations are too dependent on the current ruling party, the JDP, in Turkey remaining in power and too personalized, not institutionalized.

2. There are many rumors about the role of Qatar and Turkey in triggering the Syrian Revolution, their willingness to see Bashar al-Assad fall, the financing of jihadists, or the fact that Qatar would not welcome any refugees. What is the state of the Turkish-Qatari reality concerning the Syrian question?

Turkey and Qatar have pursued almost perfectly aligned foreign policies towards Syria. Before the Arab Spring, both countries had developed quite cordial relations with the Asad regime. With the onset of the Arab Spring they changed their policies and began to call for toppling down the Asad regime. More ambitiously, to this end, they have extended support to the rebels in Syria. It is almost certain that Turkey and Qatar have gone beyond diplomatic support and provided financial, logistic and even military support. But, which rebel groups have Turkey and Qatar supported in Syria all along? How much financial support and what kind of military support have they provided to the rebels? These questions cannot be answered with certainty with the publicly available information.

3. What is the level of investment and trade between the two countries? Can you also consult the amount of oil exports from Qatar to Turkey?

The trade volume between Turkey and Qatar has jumped from $26 million in 2002 to $710 million in 2016. This is a 25-fold increase in the trade volume. Consider that Turkey’s total trade volume in the same period has increased less than 4 times, from $87 billion to $341 billion. Still though the trade volume with Qatar is not sizable in Turkey’s total trade volume. Despite the tremendous increase, trade with Qatar made up just 0.2 per cent of Turkey’s total trade volume in 2016.

Qatar is in the top 20 countries that invest in Turkey; in 2010, for example, it invested $52 million in foreign direct investment. In 2016, however, Qatar’s foreign direct investment increased to $375 million. Consider that the total FDI in Turkey amounted $6,256 billion in 2010 and $6,886 in 2016. Qatar’s share as a result increased from 0.83 per cent in 2010 to 5.44 percent in 2016.

Turkey is energy-dependent country, importing both oil and natural gas. Its main trading partners have generally been Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. If Turkey has ever bought oil and gas from Qatar, it must have been negligible compared to these partners. Yet, given that the relations are becoming more and more special, Turkey might import more. In fact, in 2015, the two countries signed an LNG treaty. But, we have to wait to see its impact on Turkey’s efforts to diversify its sources.

4. An unexpected turnaround in Russian-Turkish relations was made just after the coup attempt last July. Indeed, after several months of an unprecedented crisis between the two countries, there is a strategic rapprochement at several levels: diplomatic, economic, media, security ... but also a coordination on the Syrian file. How do you explain it?

Well, given Russia’s absolute geopolitical, diplomatic and economic significance for Turkey, the unexpected crisis between Turkey and Russia should not have happened in the first place. Just to say a few words, in Turkey’s view, Russia is a power that counter-balances the US and the West and therefore has always to be in good terms. Turkey has a lot of firms operating in Russia, especially in construction. Russia is a large trading partner of Turkey. Russians, with Germans, are generally the largest tourist group who come to Turkey.

Not surprisingly Turkey had done whatever it was necessary to solve the crisis. This would happen irrespective of any other development, domestic or regional.

I do not know how the coup helped. The ruling party blamed the US for the coup. In fact the US was reluctant to issue any statement against the coup while Russia was early and unequivocal in its standing by the government. There are also rumors about Russia’s intelligence support to the government. To what extent these rumors are true, I cannot know.

5. More generally, do you think that the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan will strengthen its relations with other countries of the Gulf, notably Saudi Arabia? The question is to be put in perspective with the coup that has belatedly condemned by these countries (except Qatar).

Why not? For decades to come Turkey is going to be in desperate need of capital and energy-dependent. It has every reason to have good relations with the capital and oil-rich Gulf countries. But, this does not mean, Turkey is going to do this at all costs to its own interests, be it national or those of the ruling party. It is going to be pragmatic as it has always been.


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