On 5 June 2017, the people of Qatar woke to the news that an air, land and sea blockade had been imposed on their country by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and their allies. They were stunned, and in their hearts felt that they had been betrayed by their neighbours. The crisis would reveal and strengthen true alliances, not least that between Turkey and Qatar.
History notes that the first political contact between the Turks and Qataris was in 1871 when the Ottomans entered Qatar at the invitation of Sheikh Jassim Bin Mohammed Al-Thani. This resulted in a new governorate joining the Ottoman Empire; an alliance between the ruling Al-Thani family of Doha and Sultan Abdulaziz of Istanbul. That alliance had its own crisis, and like many other stories of British colonialism, culminated in succumbing to imperialist designs.
The consequent fall of the Ottomans and the creation of modern nation-states have altered the layout and politics of the Muslim-majority world drastically and in its entirety. A genuine re-evaluation of the nature of artificial colonial boundaries imposed on former governorates (vilayet in Turkish) of the Ottoman Empire has taken place. At the same time, tangible cooperation to recreate and reimagine an independent regional order free from any neo-colonial hegemony is resulting in nascent geopolitical influences. This vision was echoed on the streets as millions marched during the so-called Arab Spring.
We would argue that the Middle East today is not, as some sectarians would claim, a religious battleground between Sunnis and Shia; rather, there is a political battle for hegemony between two groups: the Arab quartet of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain (and their allies), and the Turkey-Qatar axis. This is a necessary generalisation of the battle for influence in the region, and much can be said about the role that Iran and its non-state actors play. However, these two alliances represent two starkly different visions for the future of the Middle East.
The Arab Spring sought to democratise a region full of despots, and the Turkey-Qatar axis stood by the aspirations of the people as they unfolded. The Arab quartet, however, believed that the revolutions would threaten their thrones and launched counter-revolutions to fight back against possible regime change. In Egypt, this resulted in a military coup against the democratically elected government and the massacre of thousands of democracy supporters in Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Square. Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolution has been expressed in its war in Yemen that has resulted in what the UN has called 2018’s worst humanitarian crisis. The violent audacity of the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, has grown as a result of international inaction over his forces’ atrocities in Yemen. He has arrested prominent human right activists; imprisoned representatives of the women’s rights movement; quarantined members of the royal family and subjected them to financial deals for their freedom; held renowned, sagacious theologians incommunicado; and killed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a proponent of democratisation and reform, in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The UAE, meanwhile, masterminded and bankrolled the failed 2016 military coup in Turkey, the successful coup in Egypt, and another failed attempt to overthrow the government in Tunisia. There have also been several mischievous economic projects in Somalia recently, aimed only at deterring a foe rather than developing the Somali economy. The process of democratisation has been hindered repeatedly by the Arab quartet, and plenty of blood has been spilled as a result of their uninvited interference.
Simply put, the battle between the two groups is one of a battle between those who believe in the convergence of democracy and Islam in the hands of the people, and those who oppose democracy in the Arab world at all costs simply because they fear the loss of power. It is no coincidence that political dissidents and religious scholars from states beset by counter-revolutions have found refuge in Qatar and Turkey, including Sheikhs Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and Omar Abdel Kafi who live in Doha, and a number of scholars from Cairo’s famed Al-Azhar University who now reside in Istanbul. Furthermore, the Turkey-Qatar axis has defended Palestinian resistance movements publicly, even giving refuge to Hamas officials in their respective capitals. An ideological battle between the two alliances has transformed quickly into a proxy struggle for control of the future.
As has been observed over the past decade, free elections in the Muslim-majority world have usually brought to power public servants committed to both the indigenous values of the East and the democracy of the West. The Turkey-Qatar alliance has supported such endeavours and continues to do so, much to the annoyance of the Arab quartet, the reaction of which was, inter alia, to impose the blockade on Qatar and attempt a military coup in Turkey. Both have only made the Turkey-Qatar alliance more steadfast and resilient. It was Turkish goods that filled the shelves of Qatari supermarkets when the blockade imposed by its neighbours emptied them. It is also reasonable to assume that it would have been Turkish army boots in the vanguard shielding Qatar from any malicious military intervention the night before the blockade began.
It is important to differentiate between the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula: between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on one hand, which have fought against the political dreams of the people of the region; and Qatar on the other, which has stood for democratisation alongside its Turkish partner. This appears counter-intuitive, but Qatar sees itself as a facilitator, eager to be a proactive player in a region where tradition rules supreme. Many criticise the ruling Al-Thani family for what they see as the hypocrisy of sorts, but it is apparent that Qatar’s rulers have accepted that their time for democratisation will also come. If they did otherwise, we would see a complacent Qatari state, devoid of an independent foreign policy; in other words, there would be no difference between Qatar and, say, Bahrain.
The relationship between Turkey and Qatar today is bound militarily, intellectually and ideologically. A joint defence agreement in 2014 saw Turkey establish its first new military presence in the Middle East at the Tariq Bin Ziyad base in Southern Doha, with a capacity of 5,000 troops. In many ways, this is symbolic and reminiscent of the Ottoman past, being Turkey’s first such base in the Arabian Peninsula since the establishment of the post-Ottoman Republic in 1923. Further, joint military exercises between Turkish and Qatari troops have become the norm.
The Turkey-Qatar High Strategic Committee overseeing the collaboration between the two states is actually very unique, not only in the region but also globally. A good number of non-governmental intellectual projects such as university level cooperation think tanks and civil society organisations have joint branches or exchange programmes in Doha and Istanbul.
Most recently, the collaboration between the media in the two states in their coverage of the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi was an example of successful soft power at work. Almost two months have passed since his murder, yet international pressure remains on Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
The Turkey-Qatar axis is a trailblazer, and the future of the region will more than likely observe a winner, not necessarily in which states spread their proverbial wings wider, but in which ideologies eventually succeed in the landscape of the Muslim-majority world. At the moment, some stand in the way of the aspirations of the people, while others encourage and assist them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.