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Turkey willing to mediate Gulf dispute

Foreign minister says blockade on Qatar is harming innocent citizens

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu talks to the Nikkei Asian Review.

TOKYO -- Turkey is willing to play a mediating role in the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and some of its Gulf neighbors, its foreign minister said.

In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review on Thursday, Mevlut Cavusoglu also criticized the Gulf states that have imposed a blockade on Qatar, saying the action is only hurting innocent civilians.

Cavusoglu said the decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain to sever diplomatic ties and cut transport links with Qatar came as "a big surprise" to Turkey, which is willing to directly talk to the nations involved and bring them to the negotiating table.

"We have friendly relationships with all these countries," he said. "We are advising them to get together, to sit down around the table. They need to talk to each other [face to face]. They have to share [their differences] in a sincere and candid manner, then we can all work on this issue, not through blockades and embargoes."

The foreign minister stressed that Turkey is "not taking any sides," though the country has been supportive of Qatar since the dispute began over two weeks ago. It has already made attempts to de-escalate the situation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday spoke by phone with Saudi Arabia's King Salman and the country's new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, according several media reports.

Cavusoglu's comments indicate Turkey is going to further extend its peace-making efforts to other countries involved.

The Middle East accounts for over a third of the world's oil production. It is also home to vital shipping lanes and vulnerable "choke points" like the Strait of Hormuz. Stability in the region is beneficial for Asia.

In early June, four Arab nations took the unprecedented action of cutting ties with Qatar, alleging that Qatar is supporting terrorist groups. Doha denies this. The quartet also imposed a land, sea and air blockade. In addition, the three Gulf states ordered all Qataris out of their countries within 14 days and called for their citizens in Qatar to return.

With Qatar counting on imports for 90% of its food, most of which comes through Saudi Arabia, the blockade has affected everyday life.

"[Blockades are] wrong from a humanitarian standpoint," Cavusoglu said. "The blockade of food, not allowing flights to these countries, you cannot violate people's right to travel. And when you look, for example, at the Bahrainis working in Qatar, there are 16,000 of them making a living. What have they done?"

While Cavusoglu said he was hoping for a quick resolution, he admitted it will likely take time, noting that emotions are still riding high on both sides. "We were hoping to overcome this issue before the end of Ramadan but it is already at the end," he said. "Emotions are still there. We need to take some measures to de-escalate first, have confidence through the [de-escalating] measures and engage in talks, step by step."

Multilateral diplomacy

Despite 95% of Turkish land being situated in Anatolia, the westernmost protrusion of Asia that is referred to as Asia Minor, the country has held strong relationships with European nations over the decades. In 1987, it applied to join what was then the European Economic Community, and in 1997 was declared eligible to join the European Union.

However, more than 10 years of negotiations have ensued and Turkey remains outside the bloc. "Joining the EU is still a strategic target, but there are realities," Cavusoglu said. "Only a quarter of the population now wants to join."

Erdogan himself appears to be going in another direction. Last year he said Turkey was looking to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. In May, it attended the Belt and Road Summit. Both of these are China-led initiatives.

"The world's economic power is shifting to the East from the West at a rapid pace," Cavusoglu said. "The importance of Asia in the world economy is rising.

The belt and road initiative is giving Turkey status, the foreign minister said. The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway has been completed, offering a route from China and Central Asia to Europe. "We are an important route in transferring energy sources like natural gas and oil," Cavuslogu said. "We are geopolitically a very important country."

The foreign minister said Turkey's diplomatic position is not one of either-or but multilateral. "We are not trying to substitute our relationship with the EU with the one with Asia," he said. "In the same way, our relationship with the EU should not become a hindrance in our relationship with Asia. We will look to strike a balance between the East and the West."

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