Turkey and Qatar's Shared Regional Interests

6 MINS READJan 9, 2013 | 05:42 GMT
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With a number of Arab states busy dealing with political unrest at home and Iran now assuming a more defensive role in the region, Turkey and Qatar are emerging as the region's busiest foreign policy actors. Both face unique and heavy constraints in their ambitious foreign policy aims. A number of common interests could draw this odd pair together as each attempts to extend its influence in a rapidly evolving geopolitical climate.

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Turkey and Qatar have been crossing paths more frequently lately. After extending a liquefied natural gas export contract with Algeria and demanding more energy deals in Libya, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz flew to Doha on Monday to discuss a potential long-term contract for Qatar to supply Turkey with liquefied natural gas. Yildiz and his Qatari counterpart also discussed a proposal for Qatar to help Turkey build a third liquefied natural gas terminal on the Aegean coast near the Turkish border with Bulgaria and Greece.

While Yildiz was in Doha, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, was on an official visit to Algeria to sign a series of cooperation agreements. Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani then made an official visit to Cairo on Tuesday, where he threw the Muslim Brotherhood government an economic lifeline in the form of a $2 billion loan (doubling a loan from August) and an extra $500 million grant to prevent an economic collapse in Egypt. Egypt is expecting another $500 million loan installment from Turkey at the end of January, which will help it buy time to negotiate a painful but much needed $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan. 

Turkey and Qatar don't have much in common at first glance. Sitting astride crossroads of Europe and Asia, Turkey is an energy-hungry country of 73 million people with the 17th-largest economy in the world and centuries of experience as a regional imperial power. Jutting into the Persian Gulf, Qatar is a tiny peninsular Arab country of less than 2 million (only about 20 percent of whom are Qatari citizens), has abundant energy reserves and has existed as an independent state for barely four decades. Though both come from very different backgrounds, several emerging factors are likely to draw these countries into cooperating on a number of strategic issues in the region.

The most obvious link is energy. Turkey is heavily dependent on Russia for its natural gas while Iran is an increasingly unreliable natural gas supplier. Turkey's growing energy consumption prevents it from escaping Russia's energy grip, but it has also driven Turkey to diversify its energy supplies. It is therefore unsurprising that the Turkish energy minister has been busy touring North Africa and meeting with Qatari officials in hopes of securing long-term liquefied natural gas contracts. Qatar has no shortage of liquefied natural gas-hungry clients, but it is now particularly seeking clients willing to sign long-term contracts to replace spot market trades. This would allow Doha to enlarge its market share in an increasingly competitive natural gas market. The terms for a Turkish-Qatari long-term liquefied natural gas contract have yet to be finalized, and a number of commercial factors will need to be considered. But this is a relationship that has the potential to transcend the commercial realm and develop into a more strategic partnership.

Both Turkey and Qatar have highly ambitious foreign policy agendas. Turkey is trying to recreate a sphere of influence in its former Ottoman domain and to counterbalance Iran. Qatar is trying to balance between its much larger neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and to buy regional influence with its energy revenues to secure its newfound independence. Both countries are also operating in many of the same areas. Turkey and Qatar have been among the strongest regional backers of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian rebels and Hamas. They both have tense relationships with Iran, but balance that tension by quietly helping the Iranians circumvent sanctions. For varying reasons, the two also are trying to establish a footprint in the North African energy market and to help shape the emerging post-Arab Spring governments.

Turkey and Qatar also both are highly constrained in these foreign policy endeavors. Turkey's imperial roots are still strongly resented in the Arab world, and Arab governments — even fledgling Islamist ones — don't take kindly to Turkish guidance. Turkey is also having trouble competing effectively in the region when its rivals can so easily exploit Ankara's Kurdish Achilles' heel.

Qatar has lots of cash to throw around and energy resources to offer, but it is having trouble translating these relationships into actual influence, especially as its policies tend to alienate its Arab neighbors. For example, Qatar can make the Egyptian government indebted to Doha through these last-minute loans, but will the Qatari relationship with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood give Doha leverage in its interactions with a much larger and more powerful neighbor like Saudi Arabia? Likewise, Turkey can try to mold the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria and Jordan according to its own Islamist values and strategic interests, but will its message actually resonate among Arabs?

There may be a synergy gradually developing between Turkey and Qatar. Though both face limits to what they can offer, Qatar could benefit from having a significant regional power like Turkey as an ally, especially down the line should it face internal stability issues that Saudi Arabia or Iran could exploit. For its part, Turkey may be fumbling in the region now, but its regional influence will expand with time and could prove useful to Qatar later on. Turkey meanwhile can benefit from having an Arab partner in the region flush with liquid dollar assets and a highly active media arm to shape perceptions in the Arab world.

Rather than posing a threat to one another, Turkey and Qatar tend to rub up against the same regional competitors. The two are already working together on a common agenda in Syria, Libya and Egypt and are exploring ways to cooperate on energy. Though it won't eliminate the many constraints each faces, an emerging working relationship between Doha and Istanbul could reinforce their overlapping foreign policy interests.

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