Is the partnership between Qatar and Somalia beginning to fray?

Somali officials were surprised to hear Qatar dignitaries speaking unkindly about Turkey and suggesting that the government of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed should wind down their cooperation with Ankara and throw all their efforts into a bolder relationship with Qatar.

LONDON - A recent delegation of Qatari officials arriving in the Somali capital of Mogadishu has started there chatting with Somali diplomats about whether the partnership of Qatar and Turkey is as robust as many would believe, following a period of tension recently between these two allies over a spat on Al Jazeera satellite news TV channel’s reporting on Turkey’s military excursions in Northern Syria.

Did the harsh exchange of words between Turkey (via its pro Erdogan Daily Sabah propaganda sheet) and Al Jazeera just incidentally arrive from nowhere, or were there difficulties in the relationship before, elsewhere?

Around the Middle East these two countries stick by one another and even have joint military projects, like in the Red Sea, where Qatar is building a military base on a Sudanese island.

On Northern Syria too, Qatar stood by Turkey’s decision to at least plan an invasion and who could forget Turkey’s support for Qatar when the US-led blockade of this tiny peninsular which isolated it from its GCC partners in the summer of 2017? The leader of Qatar recently splashed out on a Boeing jet to Turkey and Qatar hosts 3000 Turkish troops on its own soil. The list appears to be endless of crystallized examples of a deep, long lasting friendship. So why now negative reports and rumours of long standing resentment and distrust? And why now?

Some regional experts speculate that a recent trip to Qatar by Turkey’s foreign minister didn’t go as well as Ankara had hoped. In reality though, this was not the crux of the spat, which went public recently in both Turkish and Qatar media over Ankara’s military incursions in Syria. 

A clue which explains how the honeymoon is clearly over might be found in an incident which happened in Somalia a couple of weeks earlier – a country where both Qatar and Turkey operate their respective hegemony endeavours side by side.

But in Somalia this relationship is being tested and some are beginning to speculate that this special relationship is fraying at the seams. According to sources in Mogadishu, Somali officials were surprised to hear Qatar dignitaries speaking unkindly about Turkey and suggesting that the government of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo should wind down their cooperation with Ankara and throw all their efforts into a bolder relationship with Qatar.

Yet there are little if any signs that the Somali elite will take the hint. Indeed, across the country there is widespread anger and resentment of Qatar which many Somalis consider to be troublemakers, who repeatedly back sides in tribal disputes and pit Somalis against one another, following the catastrophic example of the Americans in 1993, which led to groups which actually hated one another joining together against an enemy which wished to colonise them.

Of course, neither Qatar nor Turkey wish to control the country, like the Americans during the Clinton catastrophe which harmed the reputation of the UN for at least a decade in Africa, even to the point of standing by while watching Rwanda implode a year later.

They both have very different objectives in Somalia to one another though. Turkey looks at the Horn of Africa as a Muslim country which is a gateway into Africa and where its dollars can be wisely spent on a longer term relationship of developing the education sector. Sure, it gives the Somalis military equipment on occasion but is set on remaining neutral. Qatar however, plays a bigger yet more nefarious game of supporting the regime and using Somalia as a launch site for its hegemony aims in the immediate region, rather than the African continent.

Qatar invests in intelligence and military and – of course – ports. And yet its efforts are clumsy and ill-prepared and the recent visit was described by one UK academic as “pouring salt in the wounds” of previous battles which Qatar is believed to have sponsored in a war torn country so desperately bereft of governance.

“Qatar and Turkey are united or apparently act as united on the Gulf crisis, but astonishingly not in Somalia,” said Oxford University academic Mohamed Haji Ingiriis. “Here, both have two contradictory vested interests, but the most important thing is that they do not have to publicly dispute over the Somali conflict. Instead, each pursues its own interest without undermining the other. This is in contrast with the Qatar and UAE in Somalia where they have disagreements over how to influence Somali politics. The Qatari seems to have shorter-term goals in Somalia, but Turkey seems to have longer-term goals in Somalia. That's why their approach and engagement to the Somalis are fundamentally different,” Ingiriis told Middle East Online in an exclusive interview.

Perhaps more notably experts are already warning that beyond 2020, that the UAE will push Qatar out of the country, which will make the adage “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” in Somalia when the water will be less muddy with just UAE and Turkey left to divvy up the country.

Turkey’s trade with Somalia in 2017 only amounted to a trifling 140 million dollars. Small change for the UAE, which, with Qatar in the background, will no doubt shift gear when periphery players are dispatched into the long grass.

“Most likely, Qatar will lose its influence in Somali politics after 2020, but Turkey will remain in the Somali political spectrum,” said Ingiriis.

“This is because Turkey is seen by most Somalis as neutral partner. In that case, the prediction is that the UAE will replace Qatar. How UAE and Turkey will work in Somalia after 2020 though is an open-ended question,” he added.

Indeed, relations between Abu Dhabi and Ankara are equally polemic and so any partnerships are hard to predict. But when comparing Qatar in Somalia to the UAE, one influential Somali MP in the federal government in Mogadishu didn’t pull any punches in outlining how Qatar uses cash to influence government officials, whereas UAE was more about being a straight forward business relationship.

“Qatar is late comer to Somalia arena. Qatar had close contact with Islamist groups and provides political and economic support,” explained Ali Omar, former chief of staff of Somali president.

“Qatar doesn’t have a single tangible project in Somalia, but does provide funding used to gain or corrupt power in the country. Qatari support in the administration is a destructive source used to corrupt Parliamentarians, media, elders, civil society groups,” said Omar.

By contrast, the view of Turkey, is much more positive for most Somalis which Ali Bakeer, a geopolitical analyst based in Ankara, explained that it “is really all about being the first there to provide security.”

“Turkey led the effort to support the Somali government and people and achieve security and stability in the war-torn country about a decade ago,” said Bakeer via email.

“Qatar case [was] later, but the role of both Turkey and Qatar in Somalia is compatible and complementary at the same time,” he told Middle East Online.

“Such compatibility is questionable though and very subjective to whom you ask,” he added.

Bakeer told a Qatar-based London website that he thought the Qatar-Turkey spat about Northern Syria was really all about how each country regards its own media outlets, seeming to suggest that Turkey has not moved beyond its own propaganda outlets spouting a biased narrative, rather than attempting to be more objective and journalistic. He did not believe that the rumours of the Qataris bad mouthing Ankara were genuine though.

It’s all about perception. Turkey’s ‘Daily Sabah’ newspaper, which might as well be published by Erdogan himself due to its hilarious promotion of the Turkish leader – and government narrative - indulges itself farcically when it slurs Al Jazeera journalists as “washed up” and hiding behind a “smokescreen of independent journalism.”.

For Daily Sabah to demand “reciprocity” from Al Jazeera merely echoes what many would assume about Turkish media, which is that it is the antithesis of journalism and merely an extension of the state apparatus. 

This particular row did not reach Mogadishu though.

Omar hadn’t even heard of the churlish spat between Daily Sabah and Al Jazeera. He, like many Somalis, tends to side with Turkey by default when presented with such anecdotes and draws comparisons, with little if any prompting, which are less favourable to Qatar.  

“Turkey is bigger and more advanced country. Turkey came to Somalia in time of need in a big way. The visit of President Erdogan in 2011 was a turning point for Somalia and it put Somalia back on the map,” said Omar.

“Turkey provided Somalia with tangible support through construction of schools, hospitals, roads, government offices and military training camps. It also offered scholarship to thousands of Somali students and Military cadets. Turkey respects the formal institutions and deals with the central government only,” he added.

Indeed, Turkey’s deep rooted relevance in Somalia may well outlast Qatar’s as the resentment of the latter being a corrupting influence which eats away at the foundations of its society, while funding extremist groups’ agendas, is a wound which won’t heal, no matter how much money Qatar brings to Mogadishu.

If the UAE wanted to draw any lessons from Somalia and how to operate there, it might want to study the viewpoint which Somalis have of Turkey and how they are juxtaposed against the realities of Qatar which is brash with its money and too easily shoots from the hip.

2020 is seen as a ‘make or break’ year for both Qatar and the UAE and lessons from Turkey can be learnt. Yet a recent comment from a government commentator in Turkey who predicted a pullout of Turkish troops from Qatar is probably less likely than antagonism between Turkey and Qatar in Somalia taking root.