JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began on Sunday (July 23) 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.
Erdogan arrived in Jeddah to meet the Saudi leadership before heading to Kuwait, and on Monday to Qatar 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 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.
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 Erdogan has repeatedly said he wants to see the end of the dispute as soon as possible.
Over the last years, Qatar has emerged as Turkey’s number one ally in the Middle East, with Ankara and Doha 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 throes 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 Erdogan.
‘SAUDI, GULF’S ELDER STATESMAN’
But Turkey, which is also 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.
As well as meeting King Salman, Erdogan is also due to hold talks with Mohammed bin Salman for the first time since he was elevated to the role of crown prince and his father’s heir in a dramatic June reshuffle of the royal house.
“As the elder statesman in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia has a big role to play in solving the crisis,” said Erdogan, taking care not to explicitly criticise the kingdom.
Erdogan said he supported the mediation efforts of Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, a possible indication Ankara sees Kuwait as the key to solving the crisis.
The Qatari emir said on Friday he was ready for talks to resolve the crisis so long as the emirate’s sovereignty is respected.
His call received a cold reception from the UAE’s state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, who said he hoped the emir had pledged to reconsider Qatar’s position.
“Dialogue is necessary, but it should be based on a revision” of Qatar’s stance, he tweeted.
Erdogan is likely to get a warm welcome in Doha where Turkey has been loudly applauded for sending in food, including fruit, dairy and poultry products by ship and by plane to help Doha beat an embargo.
Turkey has also benefited, with its exports to Qatar doubling in the last month to over US$50 million (S$68.1 million). According to the economy ministry, Ankara has sent around 200 cargo planes filled with aid since the crisis began.
Erdogan’s tour concides with a visit to Kuwait by the EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, who held talks Sunday with Kuwaiti officials.
Mogherini voiced earlier this month the EU’s support to Kuwaiti mediation.