Turkey’s economy has been in a dramatic tailspin, with its currency plunging more than 40 percent in the past 12 months. Qatar stepped in Wednesday to stanch Turkey’s bleeding, albeit not as soon as Ankara would have liked. In the process, Doha also inserted itself in the middle of a major U.S.-Turkish dispute, by taking sides with a Turkish government that holds U.S. citizens and State Department employees hostage. Washington should remind Doha that this move will undermine its recent efforts to mend its strained ties with the United States.
While visiting Ankara, Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani pledged a whopping $15 billion in investment to Turkey to mitigate its economic decline. Doha’s pledge is “the equivalent of $420,000 per Qatari family,” and “money very badly spent,” warned the director of a London-based consulting firm. To put that in perspective, Turkey’s total inflow of foreign direct investment was $10.8 billion in 2017. The emir’s announcement wasn’t entirely unexpected, given warming Turkish-Qatari ties. But it runs directly contrary to U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent efforts to increase political and economic pressure on Ankara and convince Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release U.S. citizens and employees whom Turkey has unjustly detained.
Qatar is Turkey’s most natural ally these days: Their governments share a similar worldview rooted in political Islam and champion the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional affiliates. Between the two of them, Ankara and Doha have played host to several figures from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood branch and senior Hamas leaders. But the Doha-Ankara partnership deepened into a military alliance last year, when Qatar’s Gulf neighbors enacted a land, sea, and air blockade against the emirate. In response, Turkey deployed troops to Qatar, after fast-tracking legislation to do so, and sent food aid to the import-dependent emirate.
Some in Ankara expected that Doha would come to Turkey’s aid just as quickly if the need arose. Turkish media was rife with such sentiments, as the pro-government tabloid Takvim lambasted Qatar for its silence in the face of Turkey’s woes as “the great betrayal” of an ally that had sprung immediately to Doha’s defense last year.
Qatar’s investment pledge will certainly help smooth ruffled feathers. Takvim deleted the story right after Doha’s pledge, which has also had a positive impact on markets, enabling the lira to regain a bit of lost ground. The move is not entirely altruistic, given that the Turkish economic crisis could also hit Qatar’s banking sector. With around 15 percent of the assets and loans of Qatar National Bank exposed to Turkey, fears of contagion may have fueled Doha’s announcement as much as geopolitics did.
Furthermore, the Emir played it smart by keeping his pledge ambiguous. The details of Qatar’s $15-billion package remain murky and will likely include swap lines for liquidity and other forms of investment. It is not clear how much of this will be direct investment in Turkey. Thus, Doha may now take its time with investments, and even take advantage of bargain prices once Turkish companies and assets hit rock bottom. In the end, Qatar killed two birds with one stone, as it appears to have saved the day for Turkey’s volatile markets while also positioning itself to reap the rewards in the months to come—without coming off as a crisis profiteer.
Coming in the middle of a major showdown between Trump and Erdogan over Turkey’s detention of U.S. persons, the Qatari bailout is a jarring reminder of how significantly its interests diverge from those of the United States, as has also been evident in its ties to Tehran and malign activity in Libya. The emirate’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is no secret, nor is its permissive attitude toward the financing of terrorism. Doha has made some progress on the latter front in the past year, signing several memoranda of understanding with the United States to curb illicit financing. It even began work to expand al-Udeid Air Base last month, with a hope of making the American presence there permanent. But Doha’s investment pledge to Erdogan, which directly undercuts Washington’s sustained pressure campaign against the Turkish strongman, should raise eyebrows about Doha’s conduct—and could even call into question the future of the U.S. presence at al-Udeid.
When the crisis between Qatar and its Arab neighbors erupted in the summer of 2017, President Trump initially appeared to side against Qatar. But Doha worked assiduously over the past year and gradually succeeded in bringing the Trump Administration to a more neutral position. Its decision to side so blatantly with Erdogan against the United States on a matter directly affecting the wellbeing of American citizens could put much of that progress at risk.