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How did Turkey end up with VIP plane it didn’t need?

A Qatar leader's VIP plane that had first been put up for sale ended up as a gift for Erdogan, causing a major stir in Turkey.

The intimate relationship that developed between Qatar and Turkey in light of the Syrian crisis and Gulf tensions has assumed a new dimension, with a Boeing 747-8 that landed at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen Airport on Sept. 12 set to join the fleet of VIP planes belonging to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The unequipped plane — said to have cost some $400 million — was purportedly a gift to Erdogan by Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. There is speculation that Turkey bought the plane, which was at first auctioned at the Basel-based AMAC Aerospace Group website. British newspapers had predicted sale of the plane for $500 million.

Opposition deputy of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Gamze Tascier raised the issue in parliament that at least $400 million was paid for the plane. Meanwhile, Turkey’s state-run TRT television reported that “the emir of Qatar had presented this specially equipped Boeing 747-8 out of his affection for Erdogan,” but it took Erdogan five days to finally say, “Qatar was selling this plane for about $500 million. We became interested. When the emir of Qatar heard of our interest, he donated the plane to Turkey. He said he won’t take money from Turkey. ‘I am giving it as a gift to Turkey,’ he said. That plane is not mine but belongs to the state of Turkey.”

Two basic questions need to be answered. First, if Turkey paid for the plane, then why is the government spending so much money on a luxury item in times of severe economic crises, at a time when measures are being discussed to save money and people are being asked to change their foreign currencies to Turkish liras, and when companies that increase prices are being punished? Erdogan didn’t need such an expensive, fancy plane; he already has 11 planes and three helicopters at his disposal.

Second, if it was a gift, what was it in return for? Moreover, such an expensive gift has no place in interstate relations. The plane has seven bedrooms with private baths, a 14-seat dining room, offices, a theater and a small medical clinic.

Turkey had purchased in 2016 an Airbus A340-5000 designed for Tunisian despot Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and an A319 also produced by Airbus, and put them at Erdogan’s disposal.

Now, he is annoyed by the CHP’s determination to keep the issue on the agenda and is threatening that those who are speculating on the matter will face consequences.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, CHP deputy Tascier said she had spoken with an AMAC Aerospace official in Switzerland and confirmed that the plane was sold, but she still didn’t know whether it was a gift or a sale because there was no paperwork available. Tascier said Turkey has been advertising for pilots to fly the Boeing 747-8 because Turkish pilots don’t fly that type of plane.

“Erdogan says it was a gift but did not show a document; I am told that we bought the plane. Payment could have been made through a company within the Asset Wealth Fund. There is no official information. We will pursue it until we learn. Erdogan doesn’t want it to be discussed and is trying to shut us up. But why? If the transaction was routine and legal, why is the president upset to the extent of threatening us with legal action? If it was a gift, we want to see the document,” Tascier added.

Tascier said keeping the plane in inventory would be an economic burden. “That plane costs $400 million without equipment. Equipped, it will be twice as much. Moreover, that plane’s upkeep is very expensive. Trump is using a similar plane. With fuel, crew and maintenance, that plane needs $200,000 an hour to fly,” she said. “When you consider how much more we pay for fuel, that cost could easily reach $300,000. Whether the plane is a gift or a purchase, it is going to be a burden on the country. We never had such a gift in our history. What is Qatar going to get in return for such a gesture? We hear that there are plans to sell our PTT [postal service] or [Turkish Airlines] to Qatar. Then we have to ask what concessions are we going to offer Qatar. We cannot defend such a practice.”

Last year, Turkey had become a shield for Qatar against the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But Ankara felt betrayed because Qatar did not offer to help fluctuations in the Turkish economy and felt this was not compatible with friendship. It was then that Thani —after a long meeting with Erdogan — caused a sensation and promised to invest $15 billion in Turkey.

Aren't there rules and precedents for such gifts between allies and friendly countries when millions of dollars in gifts exchange hands?

Former Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen said it is routine to exchange gifts — especially in defense industries. But there has never been a case of a plane as a private gift.

“Gifts are subject to rules and traditions. This VIP plane is a full-fledged scandal. It is not a gift. If it had not been exposed, they would not even have reported it. What we have done is behave like a desert kingdom. Yes, you can give buses, garbage trucks, ambulances and fire engines to poor countries, but a VIP plane? Turkey claims to be a major state,” Selcen told Al-Monitor, adding, “Why did Qatar give [Erdogan] this plane? When Sheikh Thani wants something next time, will Erdogan be able to say no? We have created a serious case of gratitude.”

Unlike the United States, which has strict rules on gifts and donations, Turkey has no such legislation. Tradition requires registering such gifts, but the Justice and Development Party doesn’t even bother to explain where the gifts come from. For example, in 2008, persistent questions about valuable gifts that the king of Saudi Arabia had presented to then President Abdullah Gul were never answered.

Complacency about gifts to leaders was also the case during the reign of late President Turgut Ozal in which the issue ultimately became a topic of humor. But today, even joking about it could mean being summoned by the state prosecutor.

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