Turkey adds troops in Qatar in defiance of Saudi-led isolation

By Selcan Hacaoglu, Dana Khraiche and Glen Carey on 7/17/2017

ANKARA, Turkey (Bloomberg) -- Turkey is building up its military presence in Qatar, an adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, in defiance of a Saudi-led bloc’s demand that the Turkish military pull out of the emirate.

“Turkey’s steady buildup continues there, protecting the border and the security of the Qatari government,” adviser Ilnur Cevik said Monday by phone. Turkey has deployed dozens of commandos and some artillery units in Qatar, the Hurriyet newspaper reported.

The growing Turkish military footprint further entrenches positions on either side of the Saudi-Qatar divide that broke open last month. The conflict has resisted Kuwaiti mediation and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s shuttle diplomacy, and on Monday, a senior United Arab Emirates official said the Saudi alliance was ready for this process to take a “very long time.”

The allies -- Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt -- cut diplomatic and commercial ties with the emirate on June 5. They have vowed to restore them only after the world’s biggest producer of liquefied natural gas complies with a list of 13 demands, including ending Turkey’s military presence, scaling back ties with Iran and severing relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has rebuffed the demands and has denied the bloc’s allegation that it funds terrorism.

“While the size of the Turkish military presence in Qatar is not big, it serves as a deterrent against moves that could threaten the Qatari government or its land border,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara. Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak said earlier this month that the Saudi alliance’s demand amounts to interfering with Turkey’s “sovereign right.”

The two countries are expected to hold a joint military drill this month after the arrival of a 25-member Turkish artillery unit, Hurriyet said. Turkey already has about 150 troops in Qatar, Hurriyet reported.

Diplomatic Efforts

Diplomatic efforts to end the Saudi-led bloc’s isolation of Qatar have so far failed. After four days of shuttle diplomacy between Gulf capitals last week, Tillerson said the dispute may last “quite a while.” The sides still refuse to speak to each other directly and are no closer to resolving the key demands made after the crisis started.

Last week’s diplomacy may be followed by another round of negotiations involving the U.S., the U.K. and the Saudi-led bloc, according to three officials with knowledge of the deliberations. Potential ways forward in the dispute were weighed by both sides, Tillerson said Thursday evening while en route to Washington from the Gulf region.

The Gulf crisis has opened a political divide in the Middle East, one which may have a lasting impact on the oil-rich region, and the U.S. has warned it could hurt its efforts to fight Islamic State. The rift has been caused partly by Qatar’s cordial ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, which has also aligned with Doha in the current conflict.

The Washington Post newspaper, citing unidentified U.S. intelligence officials, reported that the U.A.E. orchestrated the hacking of Qatari government websites in May to post pro-Iran comments that ultimately led to the feud. Although Qatar said the websites were hacked, tensions with Saudi Arabia over remarks attributed to Qatar’s ruler were still high when the boycott was declared. U.A.E. officials denied their country was behind the hacking.

Allies Bickering

The drawing of lines in the region also pits close U.S. allies against one another. Saudi Arabia has strong counter-terrorism ties with the U.S. and is a top customer for American weapons. Qatar hosts the regional headquarters for U.S. Central Command, which includes a state-of-the-art air base the Pentagon depends on to target Islamic State.

U.A.E. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said Monday that the Saudi-led alliance is prepared for a long standoff and that the pressure on Qatar seems to be working.

A “prolonged stalemate” will change Qatar’s attitude, Gargash said at Chatham House in London.

Qatar used to depend on Saudi Arabia for 38% of its food, according to Mazen Al-Sudairi, head of research at Al Rajhi Capital, but fears of potential shortages have receded. Officials quickly opened new trade routes for food, and the emirate is going ahead with previous plans to build a food-processing and storage facility to meet local demand for sugar, rice and cooking oil.

Investors, though, have been speculating against Qatar’s currency as they ponder how long it can weather the crisis without having to devalue the riyal or sell any of its $335 billion in global holdings. Moody’s Investors Service cut the credit outlook for Qatar to negative on July 4, while the country’s stock market has lost about $8.3 billion in market value, or 5.7%, since the boycott took effect.

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