Erdogan heads to Gulf hoping to ease Qatar crisis

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan begins his two day mediation trip to the Gulf, meeting with Saudi's King Salman.
A tank arriving with a contingent of Turkish troops at their military base in Qatar last week. Qatar has emerged as Turkey's No. 1 ally in the Middle East.
A tank arriving with a contingent of Turkish troops at their military base in Qatar last week. Qatar has emerged as Turkey's No. 1 ally in the Middle East.PHOTO: REUTERS

ISTANBUL • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday embarked on a key visit to the Gulf region aimed at defusing the standoff around Turkey's ally Qatar, saying no one had an interest in prolonging the crisis.

Mr Erdogan will first meet the Saudi leadership in Jeddah before moving on to Kuwait and then visiting Qatar today for his first face-to-face talks with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani since the crisis began.

"No one has any interest in prolonging this crisis any more," said Mr Erdogan at Istanbul airport before leaving on the two-day trip.

He accused "enemies" of seeking to "fire up tensions between brothers" in the region.

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Mr Erdogan praised Qatar's behaviour in the crisis, saying it had sought to find a solution through dialogue. "I hope our visit will be beneficial for the region," he said.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of backing extremism and fostering ties with their Shi'ite rival Iran. Doha denies the claim and has been strongly backed by Ankara throughout the standoff. The crisis with Qatar has put Turkey in a delicate position and Mr Erdogan has repeatedly said he wants to see the end of the dispute as soon as possible.

Over the past years, Qatar has emerged as Turkey's No. 1 ally in the Middle East, with Doha and Ankara closely coordinating their positions on a number of issues, including the Syria conflict where both are staunch foes of President Bashar al-Assad.

Crucially, Turkey is in the midst of setting up a military base in Qatar, its only such outpost in the region. It has sped up the process since the crisis began and reportedly now has 150 troops at the base.

"From the first moments of the Qatar crisis, we have been on the side of peace, stability, solidarity and dialogue," said Mr Erdogan.

But Turkey, which is going through a turbulent time with the European Union and the United States, also does not want to wreck its own relations with regional kingpin Saudi Arabia.

Mr Erdogan said he supported the mediation efforts of Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, a possible sign that Turkey sees Kuwait as the key to resolving the crisis. The Qatar emir last Friday said he was ready for talks to resolve the crisis so long as the emirate's sovereignty is respected.

Mr Erdogan is set to get a warm welcome in Qatar where Turkey has been applauded for sending in food by air and sea to help Doha beat an embargo imposed by its Middle East neighbours.

Turkey has also benefited, with its exports to Qatar doubling in the last month to more than US$50 million (S$68 million). According to the Economy Ministry, Ankara has sent some 200 cargo planes filled with aid since the crisis began.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2017, with the headline 'Erdogan heads to Gulf hoping to ease Qatar crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe