Reciprocity has long been a hallmark of Qatar’s foreign policy. The former Qatari prime minister and foreign minister, Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, summed up this idea nicely when a U.S. official thanked him for Qatar’s investment in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 and he responded, “We may have our own Katrina one day.”
Qatar’s Katrina finally struck in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates launched their punishing embargo of the peninsula state. In this event, help was far from forthcoming from the White House. Rather, President Donald J. Trump seemed to be supporting the quartet of states imposing the embargo. Subsequently, Trump notionally sought to play a more mediating role – perhaps after he was reminded that the largest and arguably most important U.S. military facility in the Middle East has long been based in Qatar.
The one state that immediately leapt to Qatar’s aid was Turkey. The two countries have long been moving in ever closer circles. They both have a policy of engaging with actors along the political Islam spectrum across the region, something that has become an increasingly fringe position in recent years. United by this approach and now their relative isolation, bilateral trade has been growing slowly but surely. But with Qatar’s isolation enforced with the closure of its only land border with Saudi Arabia as a result of the embargo, Turkey (and to a lesser degree Iran) became a critical exporter to Qatar, with the value of exports doubling from 2016 to 2017. In addition to trade relations, Turkey sent troops to Qatar as a display of solidarity. A Turkish training facility in Qatar was rebranded as a military base, and images of Turkish armored vehicles and troops landing in Qatar were widely published.
It is difficult to assess the impact these Turkish moves had on subsequent events. Certainly, Qatari officials feared some kind of military escalation, although reports this was being considered remain poorly sourced and ultimately unconvincing. Nevertheless, what is certain is that the Qatari public and elite were deeply grateful to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his swift and unflinching support.
What Goes Around…
Turkey’s own “Katrina” crisis is rooted in growing domestic political authoritarianism and questionable economic policies many years in the making. In August, it looked like the Turkish economy was approaching a cliff. The Turkish lira was trading approximately 40 percent lower than at the start of the year as investors fled, exacerbating troubling underlying economic conditions typified by inflation at a bruising 18 percent. International ratings agencies downgraded 20 of Turkey’s most prominent banks and finance companies as confidence plummeted. Reports from Moody’s pointed out that Turkish banks are profoundly reliant on foreign funds and $77 billion of foreign loans and bonds need to be refinanced in the next year. Given that foreign banks are already nervous about their holdings in depreciating Turkish lira, and the medium-term ability of Turkish institutions to pay back their loans and bonds, getting another $77 billion from foreign institutions will be both increasingly difficult and expensive.
Making these economic concerns all the worse are plummeting Turkish-U.S. relations. Turkish banks are alleged to have engaged in helping Iranian institutions dodge U.S. sanctions on an industrial scale. U.S. authorities retaliated by imposing economic sanctions and sentencing one Turkish banker for involvement in this scheme. Politically, Turkey’s flirting with Russia to buy the advanced S-400 missile defense system is unacceptable as far as NATO allies are concerned. Agreements for Turkey to buy the mostly U.S.-manufactured F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet have, for the moment, been halted as a result. Also, Turkish leaders maintain that the United States has supported terrorist groups in its wider search for effective allies against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. And Fetullah Gulen, who Erdogan has accused of being behind a July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, is based in the United States, which has repeatedly rebuffed extradition requests. Partly in retaliation, Turkey also has over 20 Americans in prison, many on what look to be trumped-up charges. The most notable may be Andrew Brunson, an evangelical preacher, whose incarceration is an issue that Trump has seized on. Mindful of the midterm elections in the United States, he has been trying to shape a deal for Brunson’s return home, no doubt visualizing the photo opportunity that his return would bring to appeal to his core constituency, though no deal appears imminent. Overall, as Steven Cook notes, Turkey and the United States are clearly diverging on their threat perceptions in the Middle East, which suggests that the basis of their relationship is, in essence, crumbling.
The Price of Reciprocity
Qatar stepped into this morass in mid-August. The emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, promised $15 billion worth of support during a visit to Ankara. The first $3 billion came through as a currency swap to shore up the lira, which, though a positive development and of immediate help, is but a drop in the ocean. The rest of the $12 billion has not yet been apportioned. Part of it may go to bolstering existing Qatari-Turkish initiatives such as plans for an industrial zone in Doha to employ 10,000 Turks. Private Qatari entities also look set to invest more in Turkey.
It is of course in Qatar’s political interest to make sure that Turkey sees Doha as a strong supporter. No other country was as forthcoming with help when Qatar needed support at the start of the Gulf embargo. Doha will likely reciprocate when Turkey is in need, not only as thanks, but as an insurance policy of sorts should Qatar require additional help in the future.
Qatar can afford this putative $15 billion expense. But the more substantive problem is that the small Gulf state is sitting uncomfortably between two critical allies, Turkey and the United States, in their own bitter and escalating spat with little end in sight.
The core problem is that key decisions in Ankara and Washington, DC are being made by populist leaders, Erdogan and Trump, who enjoy a healthy disdain for acting in a predictable fashion. Turkey’s economic woes are being made appreciably worse because of Erdogan’s insistence that the Central Bank not raise interest rates, despite an almost unanimous call from economists to do precisely this. Raising rates would slowly cool the rampaging inflation in Turkey, but it would also hit Erdogan’s core supporters, in an election season, who have come to expect low rates. Trump too makes analogous decisions, prioritizing narrow electioneering over wider statecraft. In this personalized and very fluid environment, Qatari leaders could be one tweet or misunderstood statement away from estranging a critical ally. And given that Qatar remains in the throes of the embargo, it needs to tread carefully.