In a blatant abuse of office, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been pocketing tens of millions of dollars in profits on the back of military and defense deals with Qatar, using several companies that are run by caretakers who work for him.
One such company recently identified is MDS Modern Defense Solutions (MDS Savunma Teknolojileri ve İnşaat Ticaret Anonim Şirketi). Originally headquartered in Istanbul and with a branch in Doha, the company was set up in November 2017 to enrich President Erdoğan's family ventures in defense and military industries.
According to the official declaration in trade registry filings obtained by Nordic Monitor, the company was licensed to operate in the military, intelligence and security sectors in Turkey and abroad. It provides military training on infiltration and enhancing special force capabilities, constructs and operates weapons and ammunition depots and services all types of contracts with army, air and naval bases. It was allowed to import and export all material necessary to pursue its stated objectives.
MDS was effectively run by İsmail Karaosmanoğlu, a close friend of Erdoğan's son Bilal Erdoğan and former head of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) youth branches. Although it declared its capital investment as 100,000 Turkish lira ($28,000) at the time, it quickly landed a deal with the Qatari Armed Forces in March 2018 to establish a training center called BUROQ Special Marine Operations to train special forces.
The center, located in Zekreet in northwestern Qatar, is a multi-purpose training hub for an elite force that receives training in diverse fields, from parachuting to underwater offensive operations. The deal reportedly valued at $400 million stood in sharp contrast to the capabilities of MDS, which had only $28,000 in capital and no experience in the defense or military industries. It was clear that political cover helped it secure multi-million contracts.
The firm moved its office to Ankara in August 2020, when the board of directors was reshuffled and new companies were brought in as shareholders who were actually represented by the same people. In other words, the changes were nothing more than window dressing.
According to trade records, several firms were listed as shareholders in MDS in addition to individuals. One is an urban planning and foreign trade firm called Doğa Şehircilik İç ve Dış Ticaret Anonim Şirketi, which is owned by İlyas Ayvacı, who was also the main shareholder when MDS was first established.
Ayvacı is close to President Erdoğan, who even attended his wedding and stood as a witness to the marriage. Ayvacı's Doğa company first came to public attention in 2004 when the government sold it a prime public property in Istanbul worth a billion dollars at a fraction of its value. He acquired the land by paying only $44 million in what was believed to be a backroom deal with Erdoğan at the time.
Two other firms, Saral Yapı İnşaat Sanayi ve Ticaret Limited Şirketi, which is run by Eyüp Ensar Saral, and Aslan Yapı ve Ticaret Anonim Şirketi, owned by Mustafa Cihad Arslan, were also listed as shareholders. They were each given a seat on the board of directors as well.
According to Said Sefa, a Canadian-based Turkish journalist, MDS and other outfits were part of grand scheme to launder money, enrich President Erdoğan's family and help facilitate funds transfers between Turkey and Qatar by various means. He claimed that an arms trade including illegal arms trafficking has been handled through MDS using its affiliates abroad.
A large number of military tenders and defense contracts were in fact offered to MDS and its affiliated firms by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) at inflated prices, and kickbacks from these contracts ended up in the hands of President Erdoğan and his cronies to finance various operations including Erdoğan's election campaign. Sefa believes billions of dollars have so far been stashed in Qatari banks by caretakers for Erdoğan and will be used in Turkey during election campaigns especially at a time when the Turkish economy is performing poorly.
Karaosmanoğlu is also one of the figures who were involved in paramilitary units clandestinely set up by Erdoğan for the purpose of intimidating Turkish opposition groups. In one of his tweets, Karaosmanoğlu openly admitted that he personally stockpiled weapons to equip a squad to help support Erdoğan and claimed there are hundreds of thousands like him, ready to come forward in the event Erdoğan is ousted from office.
Turkey and Qatar, both run by Islamist leadership in line with Muslim Brotherhood ideology, have forged a close alliance over years, and the Turkish military even set up a military base in Doha with plans to augment it by adding air and naval assets. Both countries funded, armed and trained jihadist groups in Syria and Libya and challenged the Saudi-Egyptian dominance in Arab affairs in the Middle East and North Africa.
Many deals between Turkey and Qatar have been struck over the years. For example, in hastily made arrangements in 2018, Erdoğan rushed an agreement between Turkey and Qatar through parliament for approval ahead of his decision to turn over a $20 billion tank and pallet factory to a company run jointly by his associates and the Qatari army.
The deal, the avoidance of double taxation agreement, came just in the nick of time before the Erdoğan government presented a multibillion-dollar national tank factory on a silver platter to Turkish-Qatari armored vehicle manufacturer BMC, a company run by Ethem Sancak, a member of the executive body of the ruling AKP.
Turkey and Qatar also signed a security protocol for the deployment of Turkish police units to the Gulf state during the FIFA World Cup to be held in November-December 2022 and other mega events.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.