DOHA (Reuters) - Qatar held military exercises with Turkish troops on Monday, demonstrating one of its few strong alliances after two weeks of ostracism and economic isolation imposed by neighbours which accuse the U.S. ally of supporting terrorism.
Qatar’s state-funded pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera showed footage of a column of armoured personnel carriers moving through the streets.
It reported that additional Turkish troops had arrived in Qatar on Sunday for the exercises, although military sources in the region told Reuters the operation actually involved Turkish troops that were already present rather than new arrivals.
Turkey is one of the few powerful countries in the Middle East to stand squarely by Qatar after Saudi Arabia, Egypt and several other states proclaimed it a supporter of terrorism and cut off all economic and diplomatic ties.
Qatar, the world’s richest country per capita, has used its wealth over the past decade to exert outsized influence in the Middle East, backing factions in civil wars and revolts across the region.
It denies supporting terrorism and says it is being punished for straying from its neighbours’ political line of backing the region’s authoritarian hereditary and military rulers.
“The blockade has been ongoing for two weeks and the blockading nations have offered no formula for resolving the crisis,” Sheikh Saif Bin Ahmed al-Thani, Director of Qatar’s Government Communications Office, said in a statement on Monday.
“It is unfortunate that our neighbours have chosen to invest their time and resources in a baseless propaganda campaign,” he said, calling the terrorism accusations a “publicity stunt”.
The diplomatic dispute is an important test for the United States, which is close allies of countries on both sides and has the headquarters of its air power in the Middle East in Qatar.
President Donald Trump has strongly supported the sanctions against Qatar, even though his State Department and Defense Department have tried to remain neutral. The Pentagon approved a $12 billion deal to sell warplanes to Qatar last week.
In a show of support for Qatar, Turkey’s parliament fast-tracked legislation on June 7 to allow more troops to be deployed to a military base in Qatar that houses about 90 Turkish soldiers under an agreement signed in 2014.
Turkey has said it will deploy 3,000 ground troops at the base, primarily to serve as a venue for joint training exercises.
Turkey has maintained good relations with Qatar as well as several of its Gulf Arab neighbours. Turkey and Qatar both provided support for the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt that was toppled in 2013 by military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, now Egypt’s president.
Qatar has only 300,000 citizens enjoying the wealth produced by the world’s largest exports of liquefied natural gas. The rest of its 2.7 million population are foreign migrant workers, mostly manual labourers employed on vast construction projects that have crowned the tiny desert peninsula with skyscrapers as well as stadiums for the 2022 soccer world cup.
The sanctions have disrupted its main routes to import goods by land from Saudi Arabia and by sea from big container ships docked in the United Arab Emirates. But it so far has avoided economic collapse by quickly finding alternative routes.
Qatar says the sanctions have also brought personal hardship for its citizens who live in neighbouring countries or have relatives there. The countries that imposed the sanctions gave Qataris two weeks to leave, which expired on Monday.
Thousands of Qataris have been unable to board flights to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and cut off from relatives in those countries, in a region where cross-border marriages are common and rulers refer to each other as “brothers”.
The Qatari government communications director, Sheikh Saif, said Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini families had been “forcibly recalled” on Monday by their governments despite being invited to stay by Qatar.
“The humanitarian impact of the blockade is real,” he said. “The social-fabric of GCC population is being torn apart for political reasons and we will not allow ourselves to be a party to this injustice,” he said, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council which includes six Arabian peninsula monarchies.
Editing by William Maclean and Peter Graff