After experiencing a relatively strained period of disconnect with the Middle Eastern geo-political upheavals, Turkish foreign policy seems to be coming back to the square one as it re-joins hands with the House of Saud in the latter’s sinister campaigns in the Middle East, and as the latter intensifies efforts to build a new anti-Iran coalition following the US-Iran nuclear deal.
This revival started in the month of March 2015 when Turkish President visited Saudi Arabia and met the new King. The meeting, which took place behind closed doors, seemed to have planted the seeds for a breakthrough: three weeks later, Turkey expressed its support for the Saudi-led ‘mission’ in Yemen. In doing so, it formally approved Riyadh’s air campaign against the Houthis, followers of the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam who have swept across that country’s northwest with the backing of certain Yemeni military factions. It is significant to note that Erdogan’s visit follows a period of tension between the two regional powers over Egypt, with Turkey backing deposed Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi and the Saudis backing his successor Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Although Turkey has been in alliance with Saudi Arabia and Qatar since the beginning of the ongoing crisis in Syria, the military coup d’état in Egypt and subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, led to tension between Turkey, on the one hand, and Arab regimes in Cairo and Riyadh, on the other hand. As a result, the alliance formed among Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar headed towards failure. However, after the Saudi king changed, conditions turned in favor of Turkey and Qatar and, at present, Saudi King Salman has inclined more towards Turkey and Qatar in line with its foreign policy. He has even tried to pressure Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to give concessions to Turkey with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood and former Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, who is affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. In doing so, Riyadh has been actually trying to appease the Turkish government.
This change in Turkey’s position vis-à-vis Saudi in particular and the Middle East in general has certain geo-political underpinnings, and has primarily been motivated by its ambition to create a buffer zone in Syria in order to be able to have a more powerful impact on developments on the ground in that country. Ankara also wants to use such a zone as a barrier against spread of insecurity from Syria onto its soil. Of course, it should be noted that it is difficult to change Turkey’s alliance with the House of Saud into a ‘strategic axis’ because Turkey does not have much in common with those countries and because, at some point, their interests diverge to the extent of breaking the alliance. However, as the situation in and around Syria is changing, so is changing Turkey’s own strategic assessment with regard to its position in the region in the near future.
In part, this change has partly been facilitated by the crisis itself, and partly by the House of Saud’s need to have a strong partner on its side. As a matter of fact, in recent weeks there has been a slight but clear shift observed in Saudia’s policy towards the Brotherhood after the country’s foreign minister Saud bin Faisal said publicly that Riyadh has “no problem” with the group – which has raised bigger questions of Saudia’s greater policy towards Egypt. This change of policy in Saudia itself seems to have been forced by circumstances beyond its control. In recent months, both Saudi proxies in northern Syria (SRF and Harakat Hazm) have suffered defeats at the hands of al-Nusra, depriving Riyadh of allies in a conflict that it is desperately trying to win. Saudi Arabia is also growing concerned, to the extent of getting desperate, that Iran has seized the initiative on key regional battlegrounds—a development that, when combined with the events in Yemen and Iraq, raises Riyadh’s fears of getting encircled by Shia rivals.
On the other hand, Erdogan himself was reported to have told the Turkish daily Hurriyet that Saudi Arabia was keen that Turkey “make up with Egypt on a high level, but there is no insistence.” He further added that “the real important issue for us is elevating Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations to a better level.”
However, prospects of such an ambitious elevation as expressed by Erdogan seem bleak. There are at least two pints that need to be considered in this behalf. First of all, it is not an insignificant point that both Saudia and Turkey want to dominate the Middle East. As a matter of fact it was this very tussle for domination that actually caused rift between them over the Egyptian question. As such, the issue of the ‘leadership of the axis’ is a covert challenge between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and which they must overcome to build any “grand alliance.”
While, on the other hand, regardless of what is going on in Syria, Turkish officials cannot close their eyes to the advantages of the Shia axis. Turkish-Saudi rapprochement notwithstanding, the fact cannot be denied that Turkey and Iran, too, have deep politico-economic ties. Although their mutual relations, too, were under little bit strain, it is also an open secret that both have deep economic ties. Turkey needs Iranian gas and sanctions-hit Tehran desperately needs export markets. Turkey’s imports from Iran were nearly $10 billion in 2014 and its exports totaled around $4 billion. A gas-for-gold trade, in which Turkish gold exports were and are still being used to indirectly pay Iran for its natural gas, has provided a financial lifeline to Tehran, largely frozen out of the global banking system by Western sanctions imposed over its nuclear program. Turkey currently imports more than 90 percent of Iranian natural gas exports, which constitute 20 percent of its yearly consumption. This explains why Ankara resisted international sanctions on Iran and ultimately turned to a surreptitious oil-for-gold scheme to pay for Iranian energy deliveries. “This would be a huge financial disincentive for Turkey joining a great anti-Iran bandwagon,” said one Ankara-based diplomat, expressing surprise at the harshness of Erdogan’s criticism of Iran attempting to dominate the region.
However, the rift is still very much there and has considerably intensified following Erdogan’s resolve to stand with Saudia in the latter’s campaign in Yemen. Turkey has said it may provide logistical support to the Saudi-led Arab coalition against the Houthis, who seized Yemen’s capital last year. Erdogan called on Tehran to withdraw any forces it may have in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, he said, Iran only wants to drive out Islamic State insurgents in order to replace them. Iran responded by summoning Turkey’s envoy to complain about the comments, which had inflamed some Iranian lawmakers. “Anyone who speaks against Iran cannot be our guest,” MP Mansour Haghighatpour was quoted as saying by local media. “Erdogan has delusions of being a pasha and thinks he can resurrect the Ottoman Empire,” he added.
Notwithstanding this ‘difference’ with Iran, it is quite obvious that Turkey and Saudia have their own differences with regard to Iran. Primarily, Turkey does not view Iran as Saudia does. Turkey’s position towards Tehran has roots in deep pragmatism that transcends ideological (sectarian) conflict, making it unlikely that it will ever sacrifice its relationship with Iran to benefit Saudi ambitions in the region. What actually is motivating Turkey into bettering its ties with Saudia is the prospect of Iran gaining too much clout in the region.
Although the Iranian factor would continue to influence and shape, if not completely determine, contours of Turkey-Saudia relations, there are some other contributing factors which are no less significant. For instance, while Saudi Arabia relies on its ability to maintain allies through financial support and on its leading status among the Gulf countries to preserve stability, such as providing army troops to quell the protests in Bahrain, Turkey’s position has favoured other forces, offering support to the Islamist parties which entered politics following the overthrow of dictatorships in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. This difference on how to handle proxies, both political and militant, can have deeper consequences; for, supporting two different set of factions implies supporting two entirely different ideological positions in the case of current Mid-Eastern scenario. As long as Turkey and Saudia remain embroiled in such a complex of geo-politics, they can hardly be expected to develop a ‘durable’ alliance by merely transcending it.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”