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Erdogan tours Gulf nations, seeking to ease Qatar crisis

'Erdogan will be trying to prevent economic disadvantages resulting from the close ties with Qatar'
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Saudi's King Salman (AFP)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday began a key trip to the Gulf aimed at defusing the standoff over Turkey's ally Qatar, saying no one had an interest in prolonging the crisis.

Erdogan, whose country has come to Qatar's aid in the dispute, had talks in Jeddah with King Salman, who hailed the Turkish leader's "efforts in the fight against terrorism and its financing," Saudi state news agency SPA reported.

He also met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before leaving for Kuwait for the second leg of his tour.

Erdogan was received by Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who has been mediating to resolve the crisis.

On 5 June, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of backing extremism and fostering ties with their Shia rival Iran.

Doha denies the claim and has been strongly backed by Ankara throughout the standoff.

Erdogan will have to explain his stance and decisions in Riyadh. Gunther Meyer, the German University of Mainz's Middle East expert, said he expects Erdogan will follow a defensive strategy during the talks, Deutsche Welle reported. He said that Turkey will be aiming to avoid confrontation because it maintains very close economic relations with Saudi Arabia.

"Erdogan will be trying to prevent economic disadvantages resulting from the close ties with Qatar," he said. In this respect, Meyer said he thinks Erdogan will try to help soften the crisis when he is in Riyadh.

Citing anonymous experts, the Turkish daily newspaper, Daily Sabah, has said that on this trip, Erdogan will declare the dispute "untenable and artificial, and harmful to the interests of all concerned."

The Turkish president will visit Qatar on Monday for his first face-to-face talks with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani since the crisis began.

"No one has any interest in prolonging this crisis any more," Erdogan said before leaving Istanbul.

He accused "enemies" of seeking to "fire up tensions between brothers" in the region.

Erdogan praised Qatar's behaviour in the crisis, saying Doha had sought to find a solution through dialogue. "I hope our visit will be beneficial for the region," he said.

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The crisis has put Turkey in a delicate position, and Erdogan has repeatedly said he wants to see an end to the dispute as soon as possible.

In recent years, Qatar has emerged as Turkey's closest ally in the Middle East, with Ankara and Doha coordinating over issues including the Syria conflict, where both are staunch foes of President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey is also setting up a military base in Qatar, its only such outpost in the region. It has expedited the process since the crisis began and reportedly now has 150 troops there.

Under a 2014 agreement, Ankara will maintain the military base that will eventually host as many as 1,000 troops, Reuters reported.

"From the first moments of the Qatar crisis, we have been on the side of peace, stability, solidarity and dialogue," said Erdogan.

But Turkey, which is also going through a turbulent time with the European Union and the United States, also does not want to wreck its own relations with regional kingpin Saudi Arabia.

"As the elder statesman in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia has a big role to play in solving the crisis," said Erdogan, taking care not to explicitly criticise the kingdom.

Erdogan said he supported the mediation efforts of Kuwait's emir, a possible indication Ankara sees Kuwait as the key to solving the crisis.

The Qatari emir said on Friday he was ready for talks to resolve the row as long as the emirate's sovereignty is respected.

His call received a cold reception from the UAE's state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, who said he hoped the emir had pledged to reconsider Qatar's position.

"Dialogue is necessary, but it should be based on a revision" of Qatar's stance, he tweeted.

Erdogan is likely to get a warm welcome in Doha, where Turkey has been loudly applauded for sending in food, including fruit, dairy and poultry products by ship and by plane to help Doha overcome an embargo.

Turkey has also benefited, with its exports to Qatar doubling in the past month to more than $50m. According to the economy ministry, Ankara has sent about 200 cargo flights filled with aid since the crisis began.

Erdogan's tour coincides with a visit to Kuwait by the EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, who held talks on Sunday with Kuwaiti officials.

A statement said Mogherini paid tribute to Kuwait's "relentless mediation efforts" in the dispute and called for a resolution "through dialogue and without delay".

Rights group AFD International called on Sunday for an end to the "blockade" of Qatar, warning that the regional boycott has led to "forced separation" of families.

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