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Middle East

Erdogan travels to Gulf region to help mend rift between Qatar and its neighbors

Turkish President Erdogan has arrived in Saudi Arabia on a three-nation tour that will put his diplomatic skills to the test. He must preserve the alliance with Qatar, while not jeopardizing good relations with Riyadh.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has met with Saudi Arabia's King Salman Sunday afternoon in the Saudi city of Jiddah. It is Erdogan's first stop in a two-day visit to the region where Erdogan is eager increase Turkey's influence, and settle the growing tensions that have erupted among the Arab neighbors.  

 On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, imposed a comprehensive blockade of the peninsula, and accused the government of backing extremism and fostering ties with their Shiite rival Iran.

Doha denies the allegations and has been strongly backed by Ankara throughout the standoff. 

Erdogan will have to provide a more subdued follow-up to the strong signals he has sent out in recent weeks. His itinerary suggests that he is willing to do so. 

In Riyadh, questions may be asked, such as why has Turkey so clearly sided with the small emirate in the Saudi-Qatar conflict?

Read more: All you need to know about the Qatar crisis

Furthermore, Erdogan declared that the blockade violated international law and was an attack on the "sovereign rights of a state."

But his aim now is to see the crisis resolved as quickly as possible. "No one has any interest in prolonging this crisis any more," Erdogan said in Istanbul before departing.
 

A defensive strategy in Riyadh

Erdogan will have to explain his stance and decisions in Riyadh. Günther Meyer, the University of Mainz's Middle East expert, said he expects Erdogan will follow a defensive strategy during the talks. He believes that Turkey will be aiming to avoid confrontation because it maintains very close economic relations with Saudi Arabia.

"Erdogan will be trying to prevent economic disadvantages resulting from the close ties with Qatar," he said. In this respect, Meyer said he thinks Erdogan will try to help soften the crisis when he is in Riyadh.

Citing anonymous experts, the Turkish daily newspaper, Daily Sabah, has said that on this trip, Erdogan will declare the dispute "untenable and artificial, and harmful to the interests of all concerned."

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The alliance with Qatar

Nevertheless, Erdogan is in a difficult situation. For many years, Turkey has had a close relationship with Qatar. After the coup attempt in Turkey last year, the emirate sent 150 soldiers to support Erdogan.

Meyer believes that the Erdogan family and Qatar's ruling Al Thani family maintain close economic relations. Also important is their shared support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Further to that, Turkey's only military base in the Gulf region is in Qatar. "And now, 5,000 Turkish soldiers are being sent to Qatar, so Turkey has a significant position as a supporter of Qatar," he told DW.

Good relations with Riyadh urgently needed

With these policies, Turkey has also sought to position itself as a political player in the Gulf region. Like Qatar, it also uses the Muslim Brotherhood as a Sunni counterbalance to Wahhabism, the Saudi state religion. But this conflict is not about religion, it is a question of power. Qatar and Turkey present themselves as states that cultivate a - comparatively - liberal version of Islam, through which they hope to attract the loyalty of other countries committed to this liberalism.

Nevertheless, Turkey could orient itself more toward Saudi Arabia than Qatar in the long term, says Richard Burchill, research director at the Abu Dhabi-based think tank TRENDS. Apart from the military base, Qatar provides no long-term benefits to Turkey. It gives Turkey a certain amount of power in the region.

"Over the long term I can't see Turkey essentially standing by Qatar. Turkey has been spending a significant amount of time, trying to gain the support in the alliance and the friendship with the UAE and Saudi Arabia," Burchill told DW.

Avoiding further isolation

Burchill said that this is necessary because Turkey is currently in a difficult situation.

"Relationships with the EU right now are very fraught and fragmented. Relationships with Russia and the war in Syria are again very fragmented. And Turkey and Iran are not getting on at the most basic levels either," he said.

Erdogan's Gulf trip will, above all, be about protecting Turkey's long-term interests, and preserving good relations with Saudi Arabia, despite maintaining solidarity with Qatar.

Erdogan is widely expected to succeed in this task. If the plan were to fail, Turkey would have one less partner and at the moment, it can hardly afford that. Erdogan urgently needs political friends.

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