The recent Saudi-Qatar crisis is just another example of high-level intrigue that will further engulf Muslims in worthless internal conflicts to prop up regimes — while failing to serve the interests of their people. Emboldened by a sword-dancing President Trump, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are now accusing Qatar of “supporting terrorism” and not fully endorsing the hard-line Gulf position on Iran. It’s the pot calling the kettle black. The Gulf nations have supported far more extreme versions of Salafi Islam across the Middle East than the more moderate Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood, including aiding some unsavory Sunni opposition groups in Syria and the Maghreb.
There seems no good side to pick in this conflict; therefore, it is difficult to understand Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s willingness to jump into the fray in support of Qatar. As usual, Ankara first reacted and then overreacted to the crisis by sending Turkish troops to Doha, ostensibly to protect the Gulf monarchy from a Saudi-led palace coup or invasion. Erdogan has close personal ties with Qatar’s ruling family and may have felt that the Saudi move against the small nation is partly aimed at sending a message to Ankara, as the two nations closely coordinate their foreign policy and engagements in the Middle East.
But the tiny Gulf state of Qatar is hardly the “strategic partner” that modern Turkey needs. However unfounded the Saudi allegations, Ankara does not need to go to bat for Doha.
Qatar may have punched above its weight in trying to become a power broker in regional conflicts and in supporting a string of Muslim Brotherhood-related parties across the region. The tiny nation of 300,000 citizens is hardly the progressive Arab state that its flagship network Al-Jazeera tries to project. But it isn’t a terrorist state either. It hosts a U.S. military base and signed a $12 billion deal last week to purchase 36 F-15 fighter jets.
This crisis seems to be all about preserving the status quo in the Gulf and lining everyone up for a Sunni posturing against Iran. At the heart of the matter is Qatar’s support support for Ikhwan, alias the Muslim Brotherhood. As a secular Turk fighting for liberal democracy at home, I am the farthest you can be from Islamist politics. But ideologically speaking, and in practice, the Ikhwan-related parties generally seek power through elections, as they have in Egypt and Tunisia, and not terrorism. They file candidates or hold parliamentary seats in Kuwait, Jordan, Yemen and Tunisia. Though not allowing free multi-party elections in its own country, Qatar’s rulers support Ikhwan-linked political parties in other Arab nations. But the Saudis don’t even do that. The kingdom has an existential aversion to the idea of democratic elections or regime change through the ballot anywhere in the Muslim world. Hard to see the silver lining here.
For Turkey, there is a deeper existential dilemma here. A decade ago, under the guidance of Erdogan and his then-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey deviated from its century-old Westernization goal to delve into the Middle East. Dreams of reestablishing the Ottoman Empire and leading the Sunni world led us into deeper entanglements in Syria and Iraq and into an alliance with Qatar. While there is nothing wrong with Turkey using its soft power to set an example in its region, as the Middle East descended into chaos, we found ourselves at the receiving end of the region’s troubles.
It is best to walk away from all of this. Modern Turkey was established a century ago as a pro-Western secular republic based on a self-conscious rejection of its imperial Ottoman past. The memoirs of our founding fathers, including Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, are replete with warnings about entanglements in the Middle East – and for good reason. Centuries of Ottoman reign across the Middle East ended in a series of military defeats and a huge heartbreak at the end of the World War I. Arab revolts and great power games only helped highlight the meaninglessness of trying to impose an order on foreign lands with massive problems. In one of my favorite books, “Mount of Olives,” Falih Rifki Atay, an aide to Ottoman military commanders and later a close confidant of Ataturk, describes the devastating Turkish retreat from the Middle East, in trenches and in despair.
In the end, Turkey’s founding fathers have not lamented the loss of Arab territory from Jerusalem to Mecca, thinking that what we can build at home is much better than all the conquests of our forefathers.
And they were right.
We should take lessons from our founding fathers and move away from internal Arab affairs — and back to the bosom of Europe. We have no bone to pick in this fight, and it is no prize to be the patron saint of one Gulf nation fighting against another. Chasing dreams of becoming a regional leader in a region in turmoil is an inferior goal. Rekindling ties with the European Union, where Turkey is technically still a candidate, and returning to democracy is a much better one.