Reflecting on the Turkey-Qatar Partnership, Fifty Years Later
Turkey’s relations with Qatar faces an unusual challenge in current elections. Lessons from the past, however, suggest that the two countries’ good relations will endure regardless of outcome.
In 2023, Turkey and Qatar are to celebrate 50 years of full diplomatic ties, providing an opportunity for both nations to reflect on the evolution of their relationship. Although each country has faced regional challenges separately, their ties have grown steadily over the past half-century, making their partnership one of the most important—if understated—in the region. The Doha-Ankara relationship has grown particularly strong during the last decade, as both nations have improved their diplomatic, economic, social, and security ties and positioned themselves as key players in the region. In considering how Turkey and Qatar shape the dynamics of the Gulf today, it is vital to understand the two nations’ early relations, the growth of their bilateral partnership, and the evolution of their relationship in the face of changing domestic and regional environments.
Early Diplomatic Relations
Although Qatar formally gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1971, its relationship with Turkey was slow to form. Despite a delay in establishing diplomatic ties, Qatar and Turkey developed a strong relationship over time. While Turkey recognized Qatar’s independence in 1973, it took a few more years to establish an embassy in Doha. Eventually, in 1993, Qatar reciprocated by opening its embassy in Turkey. In spite of their informal relations, however, 1980s saw the strengthening of Turkish-Qatari ties, as the two sides entered into multiple bilateral agreements. In 1985, Turkish and Qatari diplomats signed the Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation, which was concurrent with a five-fold increase in Turkey’s exports to the Middle East during 1980-85. According to Turkish Foreign Ministry archives, Qatar’s Minister of Labor Ali bin Ahmed Al-Ansari visited Ankara in 1985 to discuss a labor treaty envisioning a long-term Turkish labor force in Qatar. High-level visits between the two nations started in 1985, when Qatari Emir Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al-Thani’s visited Ankara; the following year, Turkish President Kenan Evren paid a visit to Doha. The growth in Turkish-Qatari diplomatic relations came as Turkey sought to broadly expand its economic and security interests in the Gulf region.
Throughout the 1990s, the bilateral relationship between Turkey and Qatar experienced significant growth, with increasingly frequent high-level visits and the signing of new diplomatic agreements. In 1990, Turkish President Turgut Ozal embarked on a regional tour, which included a visit to Qatar, as well as stops in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Syria. The following week, Qatar’s then-Crown Prince and Minister of Defense, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, met with the Turkish Prime Minister in Ankara. That year also saw the signing of the Turkish-Qatari Aviation Agreement in Doha.
Subsequent Turkish leaders continued to push for a stronger bilateral relationship with Qatar. In 1999, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel visited Doha, engaging in discussions on economic, energy, and security issues with his Qatari counterpart, Emir Sheikh Hamad. President Ahmed Necdet Sezer, who succeeded Demirel, traveled to Doha in November 2000 to participate in the 9th Summit of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which both nations had used to engage in joint efforts with other Muslim nations since the early 1970s.
Intensified and Diversified Relations
Turkish-Qatari relations remained cordial during Turkey’s secular government era, but dramatically improved after 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a surprise landslide victory in that year’s general election. AKP leader and former Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s early tenure as prime minister was marked by a desire to pursue good relations with the Gulf states under the “zero problems with neighbors” approach. Within this context, Turkish-Qatari bilateral relations developed further, although they mostly remained subordinate to Ankara’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a whole. As a milestone, Turkey signed the Strategic Dialogue Mechanism with the GCC in 2008, making it the first non-Gulf country to partner with the GCC under this mechanism. Economic cooperation improved alongside bilateral relations; trade volume between the two states jumped from $38 million in 2000 to $922 million in 2011. The first Turkish-Qatar Business Forum was also held in 2008.
The chaos of the Arab Uprisings—and the Gulf states’ varying attitudes toward it—saw a new period of diversified political, military and social relations between Turkey and the individual Gulf states. This can be explained as a combination of converging role visions and compatible-complementary geopolitical interests in the midst of regional developments. The establishment of Turkey’s Supreme Strategic Committee in 2014 paved the way for a more institutionalized high-level dialogue and cooperation between the two countries.
On the military front, the Turkey-Qatar Military Cooperation Agreement came into effect in 2015, paving the way for the establishment of a Turkish military base in Qatar. After four Arab states—including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain—placed Doha under a blockade in June 2017, Turkey upgraded its military presence in Qatar, placing 3,000 troops under the “Turkish-Qatar Joint Force Command.” In 2019, the base expanded further, adding naval and aerial elements. Cooperation in military industries also gained momentum, as Qatar invested $100 million in BMC, buying a 49.9 percent stake in a state-owned tank track factory in Turkey’s northwestern Sakarya province.
Turkey’s cultural presence in Qatar also saw a significant increase, as the Turkish Cultural Center (Yunus Emre Institute) opened its Doha branch in 2015. In the same year, Turkey and Qatar declared the ‘Year of Culture’ to celebrate their bilateral relations through cultural partnerships. Within the education sphere, Qatar University signed a cooperation protocol with the Turkish Maarif Foundation in 2021, creating a scholarship program for Turkish students to study at the university’s campus in Doha.
The Arab Uprisings—which both Turkey and Qatar supported—further solidified the Ankara-Doha relations. In 2016, as the other Arab (and some Western) states initially declined to condemn the attempted coup d’etat in Turkey, Qatar immediately denounced it and voiced unconditional support for the elected Turkish government. The following year, when Qatar’s neighbors launched a blockade and economic embargo against it, Turkey supported Doha and dispatched cargo planes carrying food supplies to address the temporary food shortages. The trade volume between Turkey and Qatar surged from $913 million in 2017 to $1.43 billion in 2018, further increasing to $1.76 billion by 2021. Turkey also negotiated a currency swap agreement with Qatar, later tripling the swap to $15 billion in 2020 to ensure financial stability amid depleting foreign reserves in Turkey. Most recently, following the devastating earthquakes in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria in February 2023, Qatar immediately offered economic and humanitarian assistance. Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani visited Erdogan in Istanbul, making him the first head of state to travel to Turkey after the earthquakes. Qatar also mobilized large-scale relief assistance, providing personnel, humanitarian aid, mobile houses, food, medical supplies, and clothing to affected Turks and Syrians. Qatar’s total aid to both countries reached $68 million and helped at least two million victims of the earthquake on both sides of the border.
After the Election
Given the scope and depth of the bilateral relations over the last five decades, the close political and economic ties between Turkey and Qatar have given rise to one of the closest and most effective partnerships in the Middle East. The continuation of that close relationship even after the signing of the Al-Ula Agreement, which ended the blockade of Qatar and restored Doha’s ties with its neighbors, signals the resilient nature of the two nations’ partnership.
Turkey’s upcoming runoff election—in which longtime leader Erdogan is facing an unprecedented challenge from a relatively unified opposition—raises understandable questions on whether or not the two countries’ relationship can endure in its current form. Polls have shown Erdogan in a neck-and-neck race with longtime opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu; although official statistics placed Erdogan several percentage points ahead of Kilicdaroglu in the first round of voting, the runoff on May 28 remains hotly contested. A change in Turkey’s government after more than two decades of AKP rule would carry important ramifications for Turkey’s foreign policy, potentially carrying significant consequences for Ankara’s relations with Qatar.
“If Erdogan loses this election, the relationship between Turkey and Qatar stands to significantly downgrade,” Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, told the Gulf International Forum. “In Turkey’s pre-AKP period, Qatar was hardly of any significance to Ankara’s foreign policy. Also, during the 2017-21 Gulf crisis, the CHP was critical of Erdogan’s government for being so firmly behind Doha in that Arabian feud.” Although Kilicdaroglu has not taken a position on Turkey’s broader relationship with Qatar, Cafiero noted, the opposition leader has issued repeated statements criticizing Doha’s acquisition of the tank-track factory in Sakarya, declaring that “a nationalist would not sell a factory to the Qatari Army” and vowing to return it to Turkish hands if elected. Cafiero added that a Kilicdaroglu victory would also bring about changes in Turkey’s approach to Syria, further decreasing the country’s alignment with Qatar on the issue of Bashar al-Assad’s government. “In general, Kilicdaroglu, if elected, would be expected to shift the focus of Turkey’s foreign policy toward the West and away from the Middle East and wider Islamic world, naturally making Qatar less important to Ankara’s agendas on the international stage,” Cafiero said.
On the two possible scenarios of the election results, Dr. Ali Bakir, a Turkey expert and senior researcher at Ibn Khaldon center at Qatar University, suggested that an AKP win would lead to an extended period of excellent relations between Turkey and Qatar. “Given the previous unfair and negative statements of the Turkish opposition towards Qatar, if the opposition wins, there is a great chance that these relations might be downgraded,” Dr. Bakir said. “Some observers believe that the fact that Davutoglu and Babacan are in the opposition might dilute the negative impact on these relations if the opposition wins, yet it is highly unlikely that they would have a deciding voice in the coalition. Regardless, it is impossible to say who will win the elections until it is done.”
The opposition bloc, also known as “Table of Six,” is the strongest opposition movement in Turkey’s post-AKP history. Led by the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the country’s traditionally dominant party and the party of Turkish founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the alliance also includes the center-right Iyi Party, the Islamist Saadet Party, the centrist Democrat Party, the center-right Democracy and Progress Party, and the center-right Gelecek Party. The latter two parties are led by politicians who formerly held office under Erdogan before defecting—former Economy Minister Ali Babacan and former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
In January, the opposition bloc signed a Common Policies Joint Declaration outlining their plans if they win the elections. On foreign policy, the document pledges, “We will repair our relations with our neighbors and countries in our close region, and we will elevate cooperation to the most advanced and developed level.” The document also vows to “put an end to the practices in foreign policy based on internal political calculations and ideological approaches,” signaling a rational and pragmatic foreign policy preferences of the opposition bloc.
It is unclear what exactly this policy would mean for the development of Turkey-Qatar relations. “Turkey-Qatar relations rely on rational calculation of mutual interest, and [are] not restricted to specific personalities or beneficiaries,” Dr. Bulent Aras, Research Director of Doha-based Center for International Policy Research (CIRPI), told the Gulf International Forum. Regarding the prospects for the future development of bilateral relations, Dr. Aras emphasized “Turkey’s potential in future economic development and regional profile,” which he claimed made it “an attractive partner in its region, despite some economic and political issues at the moment.” The current relations between Doha and Ankara, he concluded, were at a “critically good level” and were likely to endure for the foreseeable future. In short, despite the apprehension, it is reasonable to believe that the strong mutual interests between the two countries will sustain the partnership, regardless of the election outcome.
There are significant domestic and regional factors that suggest the partnership between Turkey and Qatar will remain intact. Both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are likely to prioritize economic stability in the coming months, and both are faced with the challenge of reconstructing the country’s earthquake-devastated south. Turkey’s foreign policy in general—including its relationship with Qatar—is likely to be relegated to secondary importance during the first years of the president’s term. Moreover, the divisions within Kilicdaroglu’s camp—requiring the distribution of cabinet posts among six parties with significant internal differences—would likely require his government to pursue a conservative, pragmatic, and reconciliatory approach to foreign policy with regional states.
Regionally, diplomacy and reconciliation, even among bitter rivals, seem to be the “zeitgeist” of the current period. This trend puts an ideational and practical barrier to any deterioration of bilateral relations between Turkey and Qatar. Consequently, the two nations’ relationship is likely to remain robust and sustainable, despite the current uncertainties surrounding the election outcome.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.
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