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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Saudi Arabia and Turkey: Prioritising Interest Over Ideology

Saudi Arabia and Turkey
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) shakes hands with King Salman of Saudi Arabia during an official welcoming ceremony at the presidential complex in Ankara on April 12, 2016. ADEM ALTAN / AFP

Hussein Ali Al-Zoubi

The repercussions of the Arab Spring influenced international relations in the Middle East, especially between vital regional players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. At a time when cold confrontations between Sunni and Shiite parties over the leadership of the Islamic world characterised the competition between Riyadh and Tehran, Riyadh and Ankara competed over the leadership of Sunni Islam.

The competition for the Islamic world’s leadership deepened when Iran was able to exploit the US interests in Iraq during the country’s invasion. Turkey refused to allow passage of US forces through its lands, popularising it among the Arab people. Simultaneously, Turkey garnered emotional support on several other fronts. Firstly, as a result of the new Turkish regime’s developmental achievements through the Justice and Development Party. Secondly, due to its official position toward the Palestinian cause. The soft power of Turkish drama that invaded Arab homes and its political implications, too, is noteworthy.

In addition to the Turkish model’s presence in the Arab’s collective mind before 2011, the consequences of the Arab Spring formed a starting point for Turkey’s Justice and Development Party to become the heir to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the region for 400 years. Post-2011, Turkey abandoned its “Zero Problems” foreign policy, established by former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, to dive headfirst into the cracks of the Arab Spring aftermath. Turkey approved proposals by the Muslim Brotherhood, a mobilising political force at the time. The Brotherhood assumed power in Egypt, as well as in Tunisia through the Ennahda Movement. It was also one of the two opposing forces in Libya. Additionally, The Brotherhood was present in Syria, the most complicated case in the region and the closest to Turkey geographically.

Practically, the unfolding events presented an opportunity to revive the Ottoman dream, albeit in a modernised version, supported by the strategic benefits to Ankara if its allies would have come to power. As such, a confrontation with Saudi Arabia and its allies, With the exception of Qatar, was inevitable. These countries all rejected Political Islam, and as Ankara’s allies in Egypt were overthrown, Cairo became a striking force for Saudi Arabia.

In Libya, the two sides had an indirect confrontation through the support of their respective allies, sparking a conflict neither of the two parties could resolve. Though through different means, the same applied to Tunisia, where the Ennahda Movement maintained ties with and was ideologically close to Turkey. Although the country is still in political turmoil after the party’s overthrow, its state of affairs trumps Libya’s plight.

Turkey has been unable to spread its influence in Yemen for several reasons, primarily because Yemen is a hot button for Saudi Arabia. Riyadh succeeded in forming an international coalition for the war In Yemen, and Ankara had no interest in a conflict with its allies. Secondly, due to the weakness of Ankara’s allies on the ground. The third reason is that the interests of Turkey and Iran, the dominant force on the ground in Yemen, do not intersect.

Their shared condemnation of the Assad regime did not prevent Riyadh and Ankara from having conflicting interests and subsequent feuds inside Syria. According to sources, parties affiliated with Saudi Arabia have supported anti-Turkish forces, most notably, the Syrian Democratic Forces. Ankara considers the SDF an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it has classified as a terrorist organisation. On the other hand, Turkey coordinated with Russia to take control of areas in northern Syria. This agreement allowed Turkish forces and its loyal Syrian factions to undertake two operations; the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch.

Internal and External Crises

Saudi Arabia and Turkey
Books “Jamal Khashoggi” written by Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of the murdered Saudi journalist, are displayed on February 8, 2019 during a presentation press conference in Istanbul. OZAN KOSE / AFP

Several factors caused a peak in the conflict. Firstly, the Qatar Blockade, imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt, resulted in the establishment of the Al-Rayyan Military Base in Qatar in 2014. Moreover, Qatar pumped money into the Turkish market, causing the Turkish opposition to accuse the regime of selling the country to the Qataris. The eastern Mediterranean gas crisis presents another contributing factor, involving disputes over gas exploration rights and the demarcation of maritime borders. Egypt spearheaded the confrontation with Turkey by striking agreements with Greece, a historical archenemy of Ankara. A third factor was the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which resulted in unprecedented international pressure on the Saudi regime, and particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The factors mentioned above gain momentum from time to time. However, the Saudi-Egyptian campaign against political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, has continued since the overthrow of the late Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. In the course of this campaign, several Saudi religious figures were arrested. The Qatar Blockade was the product of similar reasoning, as Doha provided refuge and a media platform to active Brotherhood figures.

Turkey opposed the rule of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Istanbul became a haven for Muslim Brotherhood leaders and a centre for Egyptian opposition media influencing the Egyptian street. However, the Saudi-Egyptian position on political Islam put them in an open political confrontation with Ankara. The confrontation had repercussions, such as the attempted coup in 2016. Various Turkish figures accused Arab countries of playing a role in this failed attempt.

President Erdoğan’s policy pitted him against leaders of the Justice and Development Party, who eventually announced their split from the party and turned to the opposition. The most prominent was Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, author of the book Strategic Depth, who formed the Future Party and grew to be a fierce critic of Erdoğan. Minister of the Economy Ali Babacan soon followed suit and started the Democracy and Progress Party.

The Turkish foreign political crisis mirrored the local economic crisis. The lira started losing value after Turkey lost its thriving trade relations with the Gulf. These losses reached a climax when an unofficial campaign launched in Saudi Arabia to boycott Turkish goods, decreasing Turkish exports to the Kingdom at the end of 2020. According to official Turkish data, the exports to Saudi Arabia in 2020 did not exceed $200 million, compared to $3.2 billion in 2019.

In December 2021, prices increased by 36% compared to the same period in 2020. This was the highest annual inflation rate since September 2002 and, more notably, since Erdoğan came to power. This dynamic threatens the Justice and Development Party, as well as Erdoğan, in the upcoming elections. The economic situation is the most crucial factor for Turkish voters. It is also the topic most denounced by the opposition, whose strength has increased after the defections among Erdoğan’s allies.

With Joe Biden in office, Saudi Arabia has not been in the best position. Since his first day, the US President has been eager to complete a nuclear deal with Iran, which did not appear to take the interests of the Kingdom, a strategic ally of the United States, into account. Iran took advantage of this fact and targeted Aramco’s vital oil facilities in Saudi Arabia through its Houthi allies in Yemen. The Houthis also struck civilian airports in the southern region. The military operations extended not only to targeting the UAE but threats from Iran’s loyal militias in Iraq similarly escalated. The Kingdom had to seek allies.

Turkey has previously tried to improve relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. The reconciliation of Qatar with the Gulf states and Egypt during the Al-Ula Summit perhaps paved the way. Ankara pressured the Muslim Brotherhood into shutting down its Istanbul-based media channels in order to reconcile with Cairo. The Turkish president made the first breakthrough by restoring relations with the United Arab Emirates and signing 27 agreements and memoranda of understanding in 78 days. During this period, the UAE announced a $10 billion trust fund to be invested in Turkey.

With regard to Saudi Arabia, Erdoğan’s recent visit thawed relations between the two sides. Gulf media quoted sources in the Council of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce stating that the import of Turkish goods will return to normal at an accelerated pace. This development, however, forced Turkey to close the case of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Turkish court suspended the trial, and the case was subsequently transferred to the Saudi authorities. Interestingly, Reuters quoted Saudi sources expressing the Crown Prince’s intention to visit numerous countries, specifically Turkey.

Erdoğan’s pragmatism trumped his ideology to the extent that he revived the Israeli-Turkish relationship after a prolonged period of diplomatic tug-of-war. Various media outlets reported on Ankara putting pressure on individuals from the Hamas movement, which has become closer than ever to Iran.

In summary, Saudi Arabia and Turkey may compete extensively. However, reality casts a looming shadow over this competition. What may have been deemed impossible years ago has become necessary, requiring cooperation between the two countries during the rapid geostrategic changes the world and the region are experiencing.

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