Facing domestic and external pressure on multiple fronts, Turkey is in desperate need of success stories, especially in the foreign policy domain.
The Gulf crisis that began in June 2017 created a new political order within the broader Middle East as the quartet of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt started a boycott of Qatar. The ramifications of this political divide were not limited to the Middle East and North Africa but impacted the political and security linkages of the two sides with the Horn of Africa, South Asia, and the broader Muslim world.
As the quartet states pushed their partners to take a more proactive stance against Qatar, Turkey readily announced its full support for Doha against the actions of its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbors. Ankara sent planeloads of supplies and expedited the planned deployment of more Turkish troops to its military facility in Qatar. This move further complicated Turkey’s relationship with the quartet states, which had already been uneasy due to Ankara’s support for Muslim Brotherhood-aligned political groups in the region, particularly the deposed government of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. To end the rift with Qatar, the quartet initially presented 13 demands, including the closure of Turkey’s military base in Qatar, exhibiting the quartet’s disapproval of the Turkish military presence there.
While tense, Saudi-Turkish bilateral ties didn’t reach a breaking point until Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The Turkish management of the affair seemed aimed at creating enough pressure on Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and major Saudi allies across the world – particularly the United States – to at least clip the wings of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, if not remove him from power altogether. Turkey’s attempts at blaming a “shadow state” within Riyadh for the killing made things personal between Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Mohammed bin Salman.
This burgeoning animus between Riyadh and Ankara gradually expanded to the geopolitical arena as both sides attempted to forge new alignments by forming nascent political and security structures in a bid to contain the political clout of each other. Saudi Arabia started diplomatic engagement with the Greek Cypriot government as Turkey stepped up oil and gas exploration in the Mediterranean Sea. Saudi Arabia’s then foreign minister, Ibrahim al-Assaf, visited Nicosia and expressed the kingdom’s full support for the “legitimacy and sovereignty of its ally Cyprus.” And intervening in the war in Libya, Saudi Arabia, alongside the UAE, upped its support for Khalifa Hifter, the chief of the Libyan National Army, against the United Nations-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, which has been supported by Turkey. On the Horn of Africa front, Saudi Arabia launched the Council of Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to further regulate maritime security in the region but also to ward off external actors, in particular Turkey, from engagement in the security affairs of the Horn of Africa. Regarding Syria, Saudi Arabia continued to engage with the Syrian Democratic Forces, partnered with the United States to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant but dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and Turkey.
Turkey also took steps to counter these political moves by Saudi Arabia. Cognizant of the political and social changes sweeping the kingdom’s domestic and foreign policy realm resulting in the sidelining of the powerful Saudi religious establishment, rise of Saudi nationalism, and tempering of its traditional pan-Islamist foreign policy outlook, Turkish geopolitical efforts centered on challenging the Saudi leadership stature within the broader Sunni Muslim world. Saudi Arabia’s mild condemnation of the move by the administration of President Donald J. Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and mixed signals on the Abraham Accords signed by its Gulf allies, the UAE and Bahrain, with Israel dented its stature on the Muslim street.
Capitalizing on this political opportunity and exploiting Turkish soft power efforts across the Muslim street, Erdogan was quick to project Turkey as the savior of Muslims worldwide. This was coupled with Turkey’s attempt to cement its own alliances, mainly in the Turkic and non-Arab Muslim states. Erdogan’s drive to highlight Muslim causes and counter Islamophobia struck a chord with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad and the trio agreed to launch a pan-Islamic initiative, which included the 2019 Kuala Lumpur summit. Eventually, Pakistan backed out of this gathering owing to Saudi pressure, but Iran and Qatar joined Turkey and Malaysia at the summit. The Kuala Lumpur initiative was seen as an attempt to create an alternative to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, headquartered in Jeddah, and as a challenge to Saudi Arabia’s leadership claim over the Muslim world.
Turkey’s initiative ultimately failed owing to Pakistan’s economic dependence upon Saudi Arabia and the removal of Mahathir’s government in Malaysia. This meant that Turkey was again left with Qatar as its only reliable political ally in the region and that the launch of its pan-Islamic initiative lacked international heft. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s strategy of creating a new security infrastructure alongside European actors in the Mediterranean has only brought limited success. A significant achievement has been an alignment of security concerns of some European countries, including France, Greece, and Cyprus, vis-à-vis Turkey – their NATO ally – with those of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. Yet these political moves have been insufficient to deter Turkey, which has successfully intervened in the Libyan war, changing its trajectory, helping Government of National Accord-allied forces to rout Hifter’s forces in western Libya and subsequently capture the strategically important al-Watiya air base. And though Turkey may have been politically cornered in the Horn of Africa, the recent violence in Ethiopia and rising tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia have renewed its political relevance.
As the two Middle Eastern powerhouses waged parallel containment moves to undermine each other and their leaderships continued to harbor a personal resentment, suddenly Saudi Arabia decided to end the rift and normalize ties with Qatar. Mohammed bin Salman warmly greeted Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani as he arrived in Saudi Arabia to attend the historic GCC summit in Al Ula. The Gulf rapprochement meant that Saudi Arabia’s position as the ultimate big brother and leader of the GCC was restored and Qatar, which alongside Turkey had led the anti-Saudi bloc, was no longer a foe. The battle for the leadership of the Muslim world was also suspended, since Saudi Arabia managed to co-opt most Turkish allies either through a warm embrace in the case of Qatar or economic arm twisting in the Pakistani case. Furthermore, the space for political adventurism for each side to try to undermine the other’s influence has shrunk considerably as they perceive that they would not get the generous pass of the Trump administration but would face political checks imposed by President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s new administration.
Sensing this change in the most important external variable for the Middle Eastern political order, the new U.S. administration, and the geopolitical developments within the region, both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have initiated a degree of cautious engagement. In a call between Erdogan and King Salman, both sides agreed to keep channels of dialogue open. There has also been a visible reduction in the vilification of the Saudi crown prince in Turkish media outlets and an understanding on the Turkish side that it is time to move on from the Khashoggi affair. There have been claims of both public and private attempts by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to improve ties with Ankara, but the two countries haven’t taken any practical steps in this regard. Saudi Arabia’s unofficial boycott of Turkish goods has progressed and Turkish exports to the kingdom dropped by 92% between December 2019 and December 2020. Saudi Arabia has also continued its engagement with Greece and the Saudi foreign minister recently attended a meeting of the “Friendship Forum” in Athens, which Turkey slammed as an attempt to form a “hostile” alliance against Turkey. Similarly, Saudi papers have also not moderated their aggressive editorials targeting Erdogan.
Turkey appears ready to start a new chapter with Saudi Arabia, which may ultimately happen if Riyadh comes under increased pressure from the United States, particularly if the Biden administration reenters the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran. Yet Turkey might still want an apology from the Saudi leadership regarding the Khashoggi killing. For Saudi Arabia, rapprochement may be feasible if Turkey gives concessions regarding the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in the case of Egypt and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members now residing in Turkey, and accepts that the Saudi crown prince – the de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia – is a political reality and Ankara has to deal directly with Mohammed bin Salman in order to mend the bilateral relationship. With mounting challenges on the foreign policy front and changing geopolitical realities on the regional and global level, both sides might eventually be compelled to put aside this futile power contest and agree upon a political detente. For a comprehensive rapprochement to happen, Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman need to move forward and let bygones be bygones.
is a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.
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