Alwaght- Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations over the past decade have been rolling ahead with highs and lows amid the geopolitical rivalry and conflict of ideologies. The reason behind this is the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pragmatic foreign policy of expansion of influence, especially in the Persian Gulf Arab states.
However, the rivalry appears to be shifting to hostility as time goes by. The Middle East Eye website recently reported about “leaked” documents that showed Saudi Arabia has started a strategic plan to cut Ankara’s regional clout and topple Erdogan government. The root of this brewing hostility should be sought in their stances regarding the Arab uprisings.
Ankara-Riyadh ties since 2011
Saudi Arabia’s regional policy is set on two significant levels. The first level is seeking hegemony among the Arab states. The kingdom exploits its Islamic identity to legitimize this hegemony. The second level is its relations with the regional non-Arab countries. Because it is not able to expand this hegemony to these countries, Riyadh uses a policy of balance making for relative supremacy.
Because Turkey historically and religiously rose out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire on the one hand and on the other hand is the second pillar of the US and NATO foreign policy in the region and Syria in particular, Saudi Arabia rivals the country in the two levels. Under Erdogan and using the foreign policy theories of Ahmet Davutoglu, the former foreign minister, who set a plan for expanding the sphere of influence, promoting multilateralism, and boosting the cultural and economic relations with the neighbors, Turkey, using soft power, sought to broaden its strategic depth in the states that rose out of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. With the Arab uprisings of 2011 in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, Turkey saw the opportunity prepared to deepen its strategic depth on the strength of the rise of Muslim Brotherhood, a movement holding similar ideologies.
When Erdogan and Davutoglu traveled to Egypt after Hosni Mubarak ousting, the two countries announced a “strategic alliance”, with Davutoglu calling it the “axis of democracy.” But as Saudi Arabia stepped up its anti-Brotherhood agenda, grounds for tensions between Ankara and Riyadh began to emerge. The Saudi role in ousting Mohamad Morsi, the first democratically-elected president of Egypt, and el-Sisi assumption of power even further tightened the competition.
2016 Turkey coup
As Turkey saw protests and waves of discontentment at home, the Saudis saw a chance to undermine and even topple Erdogan. A military coup targeted Erdogan in July 2016 but was foiled. Shortly after, AMC news website, citing informed sources, revealed that Saudi Arabia took “dangerous steps” towards subversion of Erdogan and the AK Party through establishing contacts with the coup plotters and backing them. At the time, Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks whistle-blower outlet, in an interview with RT revealed that Hillary Clinton and Saudi Arabia supported the power grab attempt and that Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish preacher whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding the coup, contributed to Clinton’s election campaign.
In December 2018, Yeni Safak, a Turkish newspaper close to the government, in a report on the Saudi and Emirati foreign financing systems said that Saudi Arabia and the UAE spent $3 billion on the power takeover attempt. The writer noted claims that the UAE was bankroller of the plot were not a conspiracy theory but a reality based on “accurate” information.
The Turkish officials did not hide their view that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi colluded against Erdogan. But the issue was given further publicity when the Riyadh-Ankara tensions increased over the killing of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad at his country’s consulate in Istanbul.
Syria crisis and hostility between the old partners
As the Syrian crisis unfolded, Saudi Arabia embarked on efforts to set up a balance of power with Turkey and even undermine it if possible. Upon the outbreak of Syria crisis, Saudi Arabia and Turkey partnered to damage the Arab country using the Turkish potentials, including its geographical position to encircle Syria and arm the foreign-backed terrorists, thinking that ousting President Assad could lead to their strategic cooperation. However, it gradually became clear that the ideological aspect of the Saudi meddling in Syria was broader than other aspects while for Turkey the geopolitical interests mattered.
The major blow to their cooperation was dealt by a clash of stances on the Syrian Kurds’ role in the conflict. After coup failure, the Saudi rulers sought a way to press Ankara. When Trump announced that he will withdraw his forces from Syria and faced calls from Arab countries for stay in return for them shouldering the costs of the military presence, it became clear that Saudi Arabia began a game in northern Syria. Last year, the Saudi ambassador to Washington said the kingdom provided aid of $100 million to groups active in northern Syria. The aid was to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia Turkey says is affiliated with the PKK.
Rivalry in Palestine
Erdogan’s push for a toehold in Palestine, marked by sending Marmara aid ship to break Gaza siege and a verbal clash with the late Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos Economic Summit, and other pro-Palestinian steps replaced Riyadh with Ankara in Palestine and Muslim world public’s eyes. Now the Saudis are implementing a dictate by the US to force the Palestinians to approve of the “deal of the century” which will deprive the Palestinians of much of their rights and recognize the Israeli occupation. Turkey’s opposition to the deal even gives it a deeper place in the Muslim world while damaging the Saudi image.
Qatar crisis and new Riyadh-Ankara encounter
The face-off of the Turkish-supported Muslim Brotherhood ideology and Saudi-backed Salafi ideology reached a peak with the emergence of (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council crisis and blockade on Qatar by a Saudi-led bloc.
The blockaders calculated that pressure will lead to Qatar policy review but they faced firm support to Doha by Ankara. Erdogan dismissed 13 Saudi conditions to Qatar as against international law and formalized a Turkish-Qatari military pact by a parliament bid. Help to Qatar added a twist to already complicated relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, especially that the latter thwarted the siege by huge exports to Qatar. In December 2018, Prince Mohammed in an interview with Egypt newspaper editors said Turkey was part of a “triangle of evil.”
In Libya the two are also clashing. While Turkey backs the internationally recognized Government of National Accommodation, Saudi Arabia backs General Khalifa Haftar who rebels against the government by a push for the capital Tripoli.
New Saudi measures
After the failure in Syria and development of convergence gathering together Russia, Iran, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia proposed in 2016 a NATO-style Arab force. Only four months after an announcement on the force, word spread that Egypt, to Riyadh’s frustration, quit the new bloc.
The frustration in more than one front led Saudi Arabia to seek new ways, among them a new coup against Erdogan. A power shift in Turkey will rejuvenate the Salafi axis in the region. In 2016, an Egyptian lawmaker proposed to the government to grant Gulen political asylum. So, Saudi Arabia is determined to bring life and union to disappointment-hit Riyadh camp with a new coup in Turkey. Loss of AK Party candidate in Istanbul gave this Saudi dream rays of hope. Okaz newspaper of Saudi Arabia last year, calling Turkish economic conditions critical, predicted an irreversible coup in Turkey will occur. The report brazenly indicates that the Saudis have been preparing the Turkish public for a power shift. Daily Express recently wrote that the Arab kingdom seeks to oust the Turkish president as Turkish-warmed international pressures mount on Riyadh over Khashoggi killing.