After US President Donald Trump showed up with a number of Muslim leaders in the Saudi capital Riyadh in late May, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates embarked on an aggressive diplomatic, mediatic and economic campaign against their Gulf neighbour, Qatar. Other Gulf countries, including Bahrain and Yemen followed suit, as have Egypt and Libya.
They accuse Qatar of funding and arming militant groups in the Middle East. Qatar, which has a distinctly unique foreign policy from the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, denies all the accusations outright.
Turkey is on relatively good terms with most of the GCC countries. It has especially strong relations with Qatar, having recently signed important trade and defence agreements with the country. Since the crisis exploded, Ankara has also announced that it will deploy several thousands troops to Qatar, as part of implementing those defence agreements.
Beyond all this, Turkey has called for dialogue and a sustainable resolution to the crisis.
Mithat Rende, Turkey’s former ambassador to Qatar, spoke with TRT World about the dynamics of the crisis. He was posted to Doha from 2007 to 2009. His last foreign ministry deployment was in Paris, as the permanent representative of Turkey for the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). In 2014, he was elected Chairman of the OECD Executive Committee. He retired from the Turkish foreign ministry corps last year.
Why did this political crisis explode between Saudi-UAE-led Gulf countries and Qatar in the first place?
MITHAT RENDE: It originated in disputes between Qatar and other Gulf countries which have a long history of these disputes. I think because it is a diplomatic crisis it should be resolved through the diplomatic means of dialogue and negotiations. We should not let it get out of hand. I think what we need in the region is not crisis and conflicts. We have to manage this crisis, and if we cannot resolve these problems, [at least] we should try to contain them and try to manage our disputes and differences. What we need is to improve understanding and dialogue in the region.
Apparently, this dispute goes back to 1995. There were different approaches to different political issues and regional issues among the GCC countries. We should expect every country to be able to pursue its own foreign policy. I think Qataris, in view of their geography, capabilities and priorities, they have somewhat opted for a different policy than the other Gulf states.
They introduced new foreign policy tools. They established Al Jazeera and Qatar Airways. They also made great success in the energy sector in terms of utilising their energy sources. They started exporting energy and oil. Having a different geography, their views and approaches to certain issues and certain countries are quite a little bit different from Saudi Arabia. This is probably one of the root causes of this diplomatic crisis.
Despite the differences, don’t you think the sanctions imposed on Qatar are little bit out of proportion?
MR: In my view, the measures introduced and sanctions applied [against Qatar], including air and sea blockage, were disproportional actions. But the accusations and allegations in the Gulf region were mutual, and they are the order of the day. I think all parties to this dispute should act with restraint and prudence. They should refrain from emotional explosions and strong language. They should take into consideration the fact that though countries in the region are brotherly countries and they are close friends, they have different views on different issues. We should probably try to understand each other. What the Gulf countries need now is to enhance the climate of solidarity and climate of being open to resolve our issues and differences by peaceful means, not by arm-twisting and muscle-flexing exercises.
How do you define the dynamics of this crisis?
MR: First of all, I think this crisis is among some Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, and not about all GCC countries. This crisis is just an artificial one in nature. I don’t believe [this crisis is genuine]. The differing views between these two countries [Saudi Arabia and Qatar] are not new. Everybody knows that Qatar has a different foreign policy.
This crisis is artificially created and I am quite concerned about that. It’s high on the international agenda indeed it occupied the international agenda and made the headlines in many parts of the world. Instead of concentrating on fighting ISIS [Daesh] – and hundreds of thousands of people stuck in Raqqa and Mosul – we created an artificial agenda and then, the world public is now occupied by this crisis, the so-called “Qatar crisis”.
We should work together to bring these countries together. I know we can play a constructive role and try to decrease the tensions between these rivals.
Some countries might hope for manageable low-intensity conflicts in the region and beyond. But it is not in the interest of our people, or the people of the Gulf. If this conflict is prolonged, it will bring political uncertainty affecting the quality of life in the region. It will also discourage many investors and multinational companies from going to the Gulf and to continue working with Gulf countries. As a result, [this kind of conflict] could not be in the interest of either party.
You described this crisis as an artificial crisis. Why did this artificial crisis emerge in the first place?
MR: We should probably ask this question to those who created this crisis. But [one of the aims] could be to divert the attention of the international community. All of a sudden, certain speeches and statements were made and repeated and then, a group of harsh sanctions were decided on to apply [to Qatar]. I think it is artificial because we have so many problems which are waiting to be resolved in the region.
What we need is stability and security, and to improve the culture of peace and solidarity and understanding in the region. We need to improve tolerance in the Gulf. We should be able to understand … that we cannot just dictate our foreign policy priorities to others. Each country has its own foreign policy.
Of course, the GCC is entitled to coordinate certain policies in the Gulf. [But] you should not expect that every single country in the Gulf will accept that certain things will be dictated by one capital only. There are so many differences. They should get together through dialogue. In diplomacy, you do not dictate your conditions. You start dialogue and negotiations, and try to convince the other side that it is in their interest to follow or align with your policy.
Let’s say one country feels squeezed or sandwiched between two major regional powers. Then, this country will decide to take necessary measures to lessen pressure it feels [around itself].
What would such a country do? They would conclude bilateral or unilateral agreements, security and defence agreements with different countries to try to address challenges they think they will face or they are facing. Normally, when each country formulates its own policy, they make threat assessments. When a threat is imminent, they push a policy to adapt to this threat and conclude agreements with the countries they see fit.
How is Turkey approaching this crisis? What does our troops deployment in Qatar mean for the crisis?
MR: First and foremost, our leaders continue to say that security in the Gulf is directly linked to our security. We cooperate closely with the GCC and Gulf countries. In the last several decades, we managed to improve and enhance our relations in all fields from trade to energy and policy matters. Turkey is highly regarded in many Gulf countries. We should use our soft power and capacity to try to mediate [among them], using all of our institutions and means to defuse the conflict, and to give a message that it is also in our interest that our brothers and sisters in the Gulf should not punish each other. At least they should not aggravate the situation because of the existing lack of confidence among the respective countries. Turkey should be an honest broker among them.
By doing so, in order to be credible, we need to improve our relations with those countries which are party to this conflict, and which we don’t have very good relations at this point of time. In some countries [such as Egypt], we don’t have ambassadors and in some others, we still have political differences, and different approaches to different matters. What Turkey should do is to work really hard day and night. We should try to cooperate with other major players and the countries of the region to defuse the crisis.
I served in the Gulf and I know the fact that many leaders in the region sometimes become quite emotional about the things. And they are used to dictating things upon their brothers and sisters.
There should be no dictating our conditions or priorities. We should only try to convince each other that it is in our interest that we need no more crises because the Middle East is already in deep trouble with so many conflicts. People slaughter each other and it is totally unacceptable given the values of Islam which are not about killing each other. Mainstream Islam is all about compassion, tolerance, understanding and peace. We can play a role of narrowing differences and bringing people together. I hope we can do it.
Qatar already concluded many defence agreements with various countries. Other countries also have bases in the Gulf and in Qatar. In 2014, two countries [Turkey and Qatar] decided to sign defence and other types of agreements. These agreements were not immediately ratified by the Turkish parliament. But this recent chaotic political situation in the region helped [push the Turkish] parliament to pass [them] effectively. These agreements were not high on the agenda in the Turkish parliament. I think they were among the treaties and agreements which were not thought as emergent and could wait for a while.
But these agreements were fast-tracked by Turkish parliament because of the situation. I know it was heavily criticised by other sources, but it was probably considered by the Turkish leadership as a gesture and symbolic action to provide and give support to the Qatari people, and to convey a message to the other side that Qatar should not be isolated totally.
[Turkey thinks] Qatar should not be punished because it did not reciprocate heavy sanctions and measures taken by certain countries in the Gulf. Turkey said 'we keep our line of communications open, we are ready for dialogue and we are ready to talk…' Negotiations do not mean you can dictate your conditions 100 percent. You have to offer something and you can get something. That’s why Turkish leadership has said that Qatar should not be that isolated.
This troop deployment [by Turkey] is not against any country. This is just a kind of agreement to provide support for the Qatari armed forces and security forces. Because they signed an agreement to open a base, Turkey decided to deploy several thousand troops.
Do you see any connection between the Qatar crisis and the recent Riyadh summit?
MR: There are so many different interpretations of the crisis. Given the statements made during the Riyadh summit, the Gulf countries were probably encouraged to take certain measures. [It could be] the atmosphere of the Riyadh summit which could have provided the means and encouragement to take further actions. But of course nobody can argue that it was the open result of the Riyadh summit. In Riyadh, the US President [Donald Trump] met almost every single ruler of the Gulf and also the ruler of Egypt. But certain people were encouraged by the atmosphere created in Riyadh and then, they thought that this is the time to force others [like Qatar] to make concessions and to dictate their own priorities [over them]. It is quite difficult, [however,] to say that it is the natural result of the Riyadh summit.
How much does the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera’s influence play a role for Saudi-led attack against Qatar?
MR: Al Jazeera has been quite an influential brand. During my time in Qatar, they were considered to be the voice of the Arab street. They were quite popular. Like many other channels, sometimes they went too far [in letting] certain people speak and defend certain groups which were provided to speak at Al Jazeera.
[People like the prominent Muslim scholar] Yusuf al Qaradawi were not welcomed by other countries because of their different attitudes and different views. But the voice [of Al Jazeera] itself was so influential and it played a role in this regard. Other countries, which were not happy at all, accused Al Jazeera of being a foreign policy tool used by the Qatari government heavily [against them]. Probably Al Jazeera was one of the elements in this dispute.
Do you think Qatar funds and supports armed groups?
MR: It is probably not proper to answer such questions because every country in the Gulf is accusing the other side of arming and supporting [armed groups]. These accusations will continue in the Gulf and certain countries will attempt to isolate others [through these accusations].
How will the GCC crisis affect Qatar and Turkey’s relationship with Iran?
MR: Iran is our neighbour and it is also Qatar’s neighbour. Qatar feels quite under pressure between two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran is [a regional] reality and Qatar also shares the single largest natural gas field, which is called the South Pars, with Iran [in the Gulf]. They are tapping the Gulf sources altogether. It is only natural for Qatar to maintain a certain degree of dialogue with its neighbours – including Iran. Iran has huge regional potential. It is in Qatar’s interest to maintain dialogue with Iran, which is also Turkey’s neighbour.
We should put aside any sectarian divides and animosity and try to enhance cooperation in all fields, if possible. It is important for our trade and economic prosperity and economic growth that such a country on the other side of the border is looking to engage in cooperation [with us]. Many countries will not feel so comfortable if they see Turkey and Iran engage in mutual cooperation. But it is in our interest that if the other side is frank, and working with good intentions, then we should be able to improve our relations.
Otherwise, it could not really be so meaningful to say: “Well, Iran is Iran. We don’t trust Iran. Qatar should not trust Iran. We would like to fight Iran. That’s why you need to side with us.”
[This kind of approach] cannot be a foreign policy. This is really not a clever way of formulating foreign policy.