Last June, when Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut relations with Qatar and imposed various punitive measures, Turkey’s parliament fast-tracked a bill allowing the stationing of troops in Qatar. This mutual deployment of troops had been agreed a couple of years before the latest diplomatic row in the GCC, but that did little to downplay the awkwardness of the moment for Turkey’s relations with the other Arab Gulf states.Against this background, the recent Turkish-Qatari overtures in Sudan have opened a new chapter in an increasingly uncertain relationship between Turkey and various regional powers.
Over the last few years, defense and military ties between Turkey and Qatar have deepened to a level unseen since the late 19th century, when the Ottoman Basra Vilayet imposed its rule over the Al-Thani tribe, lasting until 1915.
The two like-minded pro-Islamist leaderships have long seen eye-to-eye on critical regional issues, including the conflict in Syria, the mishaps of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and various post-Arab uprising crises. Sheikh Hamad’s visits in 2014 and 2015 sped up the military cooperation agreement between the two countries, which most conspicuously approved the deployment of an overall 3,000 Turkish troops, including special forces and air and naval units (although only a few hundred have been deployed so far), in Qatar.
At the time, among the main motivations advanced by commentators to explain this agreement — beyond evident economic and energy interests from Turkey’s side in the context of a deep crisis in its relationship with Russia — were fears on both sides about growing Iranian reach in the region. It was also assumed to be a positive move in the perspective of other members of the GCC and a step that would consolidate the High Level Strategic Dialogue between Turkey and the Gulf bloc.
In retrospect, however, the most relevant advances in Turkish-Qatari military ties prior to last year’s troop deployment coincided with the previous diplomatic crisis in the Gulf. It was in 2014 that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain first cut relations with the small sheikhdom over its populist and irresponsible policies, support for extremists of all stripes, and interference in the internal affairs of its neighbors. The Qatari leadership had pledged to mend its ways, through various secret agreements signed throughout 2013 and 2014, but to no avail. A supplementary agreement that settled the 2014 crisis was also unfulfilled, leading to the current crisis.
Amid Erdogan’s ongoing support for Qatar, Ankara’s recent agreement to lease and rebuild the strategically important Sudanese Red Sea port of Suakin is inevitably raising eyebrows in Egypt and the Gulf.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
Fast-forward to last December and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Sudan. Turkey’s president signed various agreements with his Sudanese counterpart, Omar Al-Bashir. While much of this is regular economic diplomacy and fits within the larger picture of long-standing Turkish investment in East Africa under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the agreement over Suakin island’s lease is inevitably raising some eyebrows.
For $650 million, Turkey has purchased the right to rebuild the former Red Sea Ottoman port city and will construct a naval dock that will allow it to operate both military and civilian ships. Qatar’s Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Ghanim Bin Shaheen Al-Ghanim was in Sudan at the same time — an indication that the project is at least partially funded by Qatar.
President Erdogan denies Turkey is looking to build a military base in Suakin. But, given Turkey’s military deployment in Qatar, the opening of a military base in Somalia last September and reported ongoing discussions for the establishment of another military base in Djibouti, it is no surprise the denials ring hollow.
Considering the Red Sea’s strategic and symbolic importance, Turkey’s unconditional tilt toward Qatar, the AKP’s distaste for the current Egyptian government and determined support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, this makes for yet another contentious move from Turkey, this time in Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s backyard.
This development also comes at a time when tensions in the Red Sea are high, especially with the territorial dispute between Egypt and Sudan over Halayeb and Sudan’s backing of Ethiopia in its dispute with Egypt over the Nile’s Renaissance Dam.
Under President Erdogan, Turkey’s relations with the GCC states — increasingly institutionalized via mechanisms such as the Turkey-GCC High Level Strategic Dialogue — have grown in depth and importance. But, as Ankara moves ever closer to Doha on every regional issue, the much-vaunted pragmatic turn in Turkey’s foreign policy following the dismissal of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in 2016 seems increasingly short-lived.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida