Turkey and Qatar vie for clout in Africa’s trade and politics (Daily Nation)

How do you start to compare Qatar and Turkey?

The polarity between the two countries that have come of age — politically, economically, and socially — is so vast that one cannot help but think of an oxymoron when discussing the other.

Qatar is a monarchy that rose from the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula to become one of the richest countries in the world, thanks to vast oil and natural gas reserves.

It is a largely tax-free, tiny sheikhdom with a population of about 1.8 million — 300,000 of whom are citizens, with the rest being foreigners coming to work.

Qatar is led by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, who at 34 is considered one of the youngest reigning monarchs. Sheikh Tamim is also the chairman of the committee organising the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which will be hosted by Qatar, making it the first Arab country to do so in history.

Enter Turkey, a democratic nation of 80 million people that sits at the intersection of Europe and Asia. This secular republic has largely invested in foreign trade and commerce, exporting goods from textiles, electronics, and food to furniture.

Over the past decade, Turkey has been defined by the rule of the Justice and Development Party, whose leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has transformed the nation’s domestic and foreign policies through a mix of populist beliefs and politics. Unlike Qatar, which was a British protectorate until 1971, Turkey was once the seat of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled swathes of land stretching from Serbia to Somalia.

Yet the rise of both Turkey and Qatar as global powerhouses alludes to the coming of age of two underdogs, who are out to expand their sphere of influence in the Middle East and beyond. Using a mix of cultural, monetary, and diplomatic leverages, Turkey and Qatar have both over the past decade become forces to reckon with in a volatile region that lies at the heart of the world.

At the diplomatic level, both Turkey and Qatar have supported the Arab Spring movement that deposed decades-old dictatorships. Qatar provided rebels fighting Libya’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi with millions of dollars in aid, training and weaponry. It has also provided support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, brokered peace among rival factions in Lebanon, mediated between the Darfur rebels and the Sudan government, and even went as far as arbitrating a border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti.

Turkey, on the other hand, was one of the first countries to call for the stepping down of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who ruled the country for almost three decades.

Prime Minister Erdogan also called on Syria’s President Bashar Assad to stand down and provided support to Libya’s National Transitional Council against Gaddafi. He even once tried to act as a bridge between the West and Tehran on the latter’s nuclear programme.

More importantly, given his image as a Muslim leading a secular nation, Mr Erdogan has provided an example that religious beliefs can be independent from political systems of governance.

All this has provoked a backlash from leaders across the Middle East, whose monarchs and dictators would go great lengths to sustain their stay in power. The latest regional power struggle came in March, when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates recalled their envoys from Qatar, citing the country’s role in undermining regional security.

However, underlying the diplomatic muscle of both Turkey and Qatar is a larger battle for hearts and minds not only in the Middle East, but also in the world. This is exemplified in Qatar’s financing of the Al Jazeera news channel, which has grown to become a broadcasting colossus operating in multiple languages. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once commended the channel’s coverage, asserting its leadership in using “real news” to “literally changing people’s minds and attitudes” around the world.

For Turkey, the rise of its soap operas is proving to be a symbol of its soft power globally. Beaming into millions of households every day, the steamy stories, translated into dozens of languages, are fast becoming popular pastimes in homes across the world.

This amalgam of cultural and diplomatic power, strengthened by foreign trade and petrodollars, has made Turkey and Qatar two of the most influential countries in the world.

Specifically, Qatar’s foray into Africa, analysts say, heralds a cartwheel moment for a continent trying to diversify its economy by trading with both East and West. This was recently brought into focus during President Uhuru Kenyatta’s trip to Turkey and Qatar, where he signed key bilateral deals to improve cooperation between the three countries.

“Kenya is balancing the significance of having the world’s fastest growing business spheres — the East and the Middle East — into its orbit,” said Mr Abdihakim Ainte, the managing director of international consultancy firm, Transitional Advisory.

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