Even though the official state language is Arabic, the lingua franca in Qatar is indisputably English. This is not surprising given that an overwhelming majority of the country's residents are expatriate workers who are not Arabic speakers. Qatari citizens, and anyone living in that country, typically learn English almost perforce by practicing it daily with this cosmopolitan population. Many Qataris also study other languages such as French or Spanish, not out of necessity, but because they want to. To that list of popular languages Qataris are increasingly adding Turkish as a new foreign language of choice.
It is hardly shocking now to hear Qataris, particularly young women, speaking Turkish in casual conversation with each other. All the more striking, their level of Turkish proficiency is often not limited to just a few basic words, but frequently has developed to the level of easily conducting a full conversation in Turkish with a native speaker. This interest arises from a combination of cultural, political and ideological affinities between Turkey and Qatar that have been developing in recent years and now intensifying in the context of the boycott of Doha by some of its primary Gulf Arab neighbors.
The strong interest some Qataris show in Turkish came as a great surprise to Fatma Çekiç, a Turkish instructor at one of the language centers in Doha. Çekiç says she knew before coming to Qatar that Qataris loved Turkey, but did not expect that some would like to learn its language. She has Qatari students from all age groups ranging from nine to 65 who speak Turkish fluently, but take her classes to improve their grammar and writing.
Turkish soap operas seem to be one important factor driving interest in Turkish among Qataris. Many Qataris watch these soap operas online, which surely helps them get acquainted with the language, as the shows available on the internet are not dubbed in Arabic, but do include subtitles. Turkish and Arabic come from different language families – Turkic and Semitic, respectively – and therefore have entirely different semantic structures and grammatical forms. But thanks to a long history of interaction and the shared religion of Islam, Turkish and Arabic have many common words. This certainly encourages and helps Qataris to start learning the language properly when they decide to.
According to Çekiç, the popularity of Turkish soap operas is a huge factor in leading Qataris to study Turkish. Most of her students are women who regularly watch the soap operas. A 21-year old Qatari woman, Alanoud, confirms Çekiç's observation. She says she decided to go to Istanbul a few years ago after having watched some Turkish soap operas. She then returned to Qatar and started taking Turkish classes. "For me it is just for fun. I watched over 10 soap operas in Turkish, and I really liked the language. Now I am able to fully understand and speak the language, which feels great," she said.
While most of her students are women, Çekiç has some male students as well who are businessmen, landlords, soldiers and high school and university students, including an al-Thani royal family member – are all taking her Turkish language classes. In addition to business, tourism also plays an important role in motivating Qataris to study Turkish. "Qataris go to Turkey on vacation four or five times a year. They are in love with Istanbul," Çekiç said. "It gives them another reason to learn the language, because it is quite essential, as English is not widely spoken in Turkey."
Politics and international relations also seems to be driving Qataris' interest in Turkish. Turkey and Qatar have become extremely close over the past years as they have taken very similar stances on regional and international developments, in particular a shared support for Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani have developed an especially friendly relationship, which has further boosted Qataris' interests in Turkish. The ideological affinity between the Qatari administration and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) was tested and confirmed during the Arab Spring uprisings. Close national ties naturally promote business and facilitate travel and tourism.
Some people on both sides take the national and ideological affinity deeply to heart. Shamma, a 27-year-old lawyer, said that one of her biggest motivations for learning Turkish was to have a conversation with Erdoğan in Turkish one day. Her dream came true during one of Erdoğan's visits to Qatar. Shamma grabbed Erdoğan's attention in a crowd by reciting one of his favorite poems. The two then struck up a conversation, which impressed the president, as Shamma recalled. "He asked me how I learned Turkish this well, and I answered him that I learned it for him."
The ongoing boycott, which erupted in early summer of 2017, also contributed to the popularity of Turkish in Qatar, as Turkey has taken an unusually strong pro-Qatar stance in the confrontation. This has cemented the impression, and the reality, that Ankara is a key ally for Doha, including as a source of food, as well as other support, including close military ties. And as Turkish products increasingly hit the shelves of the country's supermarkets, the Turkish language has become much more prominent in Qatari culture.
As Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain imposed a boycott on Qatar, Turkey quickly sent planes and ships full of Turkish food and other products with no Arabic or English translations. The Qatari Economy and Commerce Ministry immediately shared a list of Turkish words that were on the products with their Arabic and English translations. The chart went viral on social media as hundreds of Qataris shared and viewed it. To show their appreciation of Turkey's strong support, many Qataris also posted appreciation notes in Turkish on Twitter and Instagram. The experience of the boycott also helps to promote knowledge of and engagement with Turkish throughout Qatar.
Çekiç personally observed the impact of the boycott on the levels of interest in Turkish in Qatar. She now has more Qatari students than before. "First Turkish TV productions hit the houses, now it is food hitting the market shelves. Qataris have become more exposed to Turkey, its culture and language in many ways," she explained.
Many commentators and scholars have tracked the deepening and developing relations between Turkey and Qatar, but they have mainly focused on economy and politics. It seems, however, that closer relations between the two countries are growing well beyond these and are extending into culture. Turkish soap operas and the developing inter-state relations between Turkey and Qatar in general, and their rulers in particular, over the past few years have made the Turkish language and culture more attractive to Qataris.
* Turkish journalist and author, formerly based in Doha, Qatar.