April 15, 2016

Why Qatar is Hosting a Turkish Military Base

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani shake hands during a ceremony in Doha, Qatar December 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Yasin Bulbul, Presidential Press Service, Pool)
by Feyza Gumusluoglu

As the Ottoman and British empires engaged in one of the deadliest battles of World War I over the Dardanelles, they also confronted each other in Qatar. Unlike in the Dardanelles, however, in the Gulf the Ottomans were not determined to win. In the summer of 1915, Ottoman troops stationed there peacefully left their garrison – the last one they occupied in the Gulf region – and crossed the waters to Iran. They left behind a mountain gun, two field guns, 14 rifles, 120 cases of ammunition, and 500 projectiles. The two field guns did not even have powder. The ammunition and rifles were given to Sheikh Abdallah bin Qassim, Qatar’s ruler, who assisted the British invasion.

Almost a century later, in December 2014, Sheikh Abdallah’s great-great-grandson, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, signed a major agreement with the Ottoman Empire’s successor, Turkey, allowing for the deployment of the Turkish Armed Forces on Qatari soil. Specifically, Qatar will allow Turkey “to use … its ports/airports/airspace; deploy forces on its territory; benefit from its facilities, camps, units, institutions and military facilities.”

The immediate reason for this development is the regional isolation Turkey and Qatar have experienced, especially after the 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi. As a result, Turkey’s relations with Egypt collapsed in November 2013 when Egypt recalled its ambassador to Ankara and expelled Turkey’s ambassador to Cairo. Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also visibly cooled. As a consequence, the fifth joint ministerial meeting of the Turkey-GCC High Level Strategic Dialogue has not convened as planned, even though it was scheduled to be held in 2013 in Bahrain.

The depth of Qatar’s isolation became apparent when three other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, withdrew their ambassadors in March 2014 protesting Qatar’s alleged interference in their internal affairs by supporting individuals and groups “threatening the security and stability of the GCC.” This was generally understood to be a euphemism for the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt joined them and also withdrew its ambassador from Doha a few days later. Although the contretemps was eventually resolved, it brought Qatar and Turkey closer together.

Even though this mutual regional isolation was a powerful incentive for closer ties, Turkey and Qatar had for years been developing their relations. The two countries had aligned their foreign policies on several critical issues, most of which were at odds with those of some key Gulf states. Both had developed relatively good relations with Iran, recognized and treated Hamas as a legitimate actor, cooperated to try to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, welcomed the coming to power of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated figures and political parties in Tunisia and Egypt, and became major financial and diplomatic supporters of Egypt during Morsi’s presidency. The December 2014 military agreement was preceded by three previous Qatar-Turkey deals – the first was signed in 2007 followed by two in 2012 – strengthening cooperation on military training and defense equipment production.

Turkey and Qatar’s mutual isolation simply sped up the pace of an already-burgeoning bilateral relationship. When Qatar mended ties with the three other Gulf states in November 2014 that did not alter the direction and pace of improved relations with Turkey, as the military agreement came just a month after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain returned their ambassadors to Doha. Turkey improved relations with these states, especially Saudi Arabia, as Riyadh faced growing security threats, most notably from the Houthis in Yemen and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and sought Turkish help.

Since the signing of the agreement, the two countries have strengthened ties. The Turkish Armed Forces have sent junior officers (the exact number is unknown) to Qatar to study Arabic. Qatar has begun constructing the military base where Turkish troops will be based.

Turkey’s motivations are more obvious. Especially after the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party in the early 2000s, Turkey has pursued a multilayered foreign policy in the Middle East and improved its relations with many countries throughout the region. Turkey’s trade volume within the region has multiplied. Turkish cultural exports to and imports from the region have diversified. And Turkey’s involvement in regional politics has become more intense.

Turkey moved to diversify its regional military relations as well. The Turkish Armed Forces have reported that close to 30,000 military personnel “from 54 friendly and allied countries attended various educational and training programs” the Turkish military provided. Turkey is seeking to enter the lucrative Gulf defense market, and establishing military ties with potential customers should facilitate that process.

Qatar’s motivations are less clear-cut. Qatar shares similar primary security challenges as its neighbors, above all seeking to avoid the military and political domination of the Gulf region by Iran. The Gulf states had hoped Turkey could balance Iran, and the Gulf Cooperation Council declared Turkey to be a strategic partner in 2008 and instituted the strategic dialogue.

But Qatar has its own particular and secondary reasons for seeking closer ties with Turkey. Until the early 1990s, Qatar operated in relative alignment with Saudi Arabia. Qatar then began to adopt a more assertive approach under Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Saudi Arabia and the UAE became increasingly hostile and Qatar found itself relatively isolated. This may help explain Qatar’s military build up. Recently, however, Qatar seems to have realized that its soft power capacity and Muslim Brotherhood-oriented approach faced serious limitations, and it has gone a long way to repairing relations with Riyadh.

The Turkish military base in Qatar is a powerful indication the two countries are determined to solidify their long-term relationship. Whether this will really help solve Qatar’s security concerns remains to be seen. But Qatar seems determined to try to develop a more substantial defense force and Turkey’s formidable army might be able to enhance Doha’s security.

Feyza Gumusluoglu is a Doha-based Turkish journalist and author.