Saudi Arabian politics has witnessed a number of highly unusual events in recent years. Most recently, the "Commission for Investigation of Corruption" presided over by the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman decided to question dozens of businessmen, including several Saudi princes and billionaires. The decision taken by the commission on corruption and the political earthquake it created in Saudi Arabia was immediately followed by a rocket launch by Iranian-sponsored Houthis in Yemen targeting Riyadh Airport, and the announcement in the Saudi capital that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri would resign from his position, citing fears of an assassination attempt. These developments have increased the tension between Tehran and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and the US view Iran as the primary threat in the region, causing the Tehran regime to feel even more threatened by recent developments. It has also been revealed that these four countries create a strong alliance against the regime in Tehran. While the tension between Iran and its regional and international rivals has gradually increased, another country that undoubtedly has an interest in this conflict is Turkey.
The ongoing uncertainty in Saudi policy towards Turkey has led to ambiguous relations between Riyadh and Ankara. This became particularly evident after the political blockade launched by Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar. The blockading countries demanded the shutdown of a Turkish military base in Qatar, the construction of which had only been announced after the blockade. From this perspective, it can be assumed that Turkey is agitated with the news coming from Saudi Arabia. Erdogan’s government may have to make some difficult decisions in the near future, particularly in its relations with Saudi Arabia. The Qatar crisis made it clear that Riyadh and Ankara were not allies. The Turkish administration clearly backed the Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and three bilateral meetings were held between the two leaders following the onset of the crisis. The disputes between Riyadh and Ankara on various regional issues reached their zenith in the aftermath of the Qatar crisis, and Erdogan’s government became particularly concerned about Saudi motivations towards Turkey.
Is There A “Reliable Ally” for Turkey?
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the United States are gradually tightening their policies towards Turkey. While Erdogan and Trump met twice, direct contacts were established between Abu Dhabi and Ankara in this period, and no serious crisis emerged with the Saudi government, these three countries started to implement hostile policies towards Turkey. It has been speculated that the US was behind the July 15, 2016 coup attempt through its financial support for the FETO organization, channeled through the UAE. Fetullah Gülen, the FETO ringleader, still resides in the US. Differences between the policies of Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Ankara over the Muslim Brotherhood persist while the US is openly arming the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey proclaims as a terrorist organization. These issues are at the center of tensions between Ankara and these three countries. Particularly, the conflicts and differences in their policies towards Syria are steadily escalating tensions between the USA and Turkey.
The recent developments in Syria would thus serve as an important baseline for a clear understanding of the current situation in the Middle East. For a long time, Turkish policy on Syria ran in line with the US and Saudi Arabia. The period when Turkey acted in alliance with this bloc coincided with the height of the Syrian civil war, and Ankara undertook the highest related costs. On Syria, as Turkey distanced itself from US policies and started negotiating with Russia and Iran, concrete steps were taken to solve the crisis. The US and Saudi Arabia who had previously been firmly on the same side as Turkey failed to take steps for the solution of the problem, and also failed to contribute to Turkish interests in the field. On the contrary, the attitude of the US towards Syria has prolonged the war and seriously exacerbated the loss of human lives. For these reasons, the Erdogan government’s reservations about the real motivations of countries such as the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the Syrian war was a decisive factor in Ankara’s reluctance to cooperate with them. On the other hand, Ankara did not face direct threats from Moscow or Tehran, despite serious confrontations between Turkey, Iran, and Russia during the Syrian civil war. Consequently, Ankara has taken a significant shift in its Syria policy, left the orbit of the US, and commenced negotiations with Russia and Iran on a solution to the crisis.
The approach to the Muslim Brotherhood movement and revolutionary process in Egypt has caused further rifts between Turkey and other regional actors. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the most prominent opponents of Turkish policies in this regard. The Erdogan administration, along with Qatar, supported popular democratic demands in Egypt and believed that the country was undergoing the process of democratization. However, the Riyadh and Abu Dhabi governments were cautious about both the democratic transformation in Egypt and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood movement as a civilian political actor. Their fears stemmed from their assessment of the movement and the success of the revolution in Egypt as a threat to their own regimes. As a result, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi openly supported the military coup in Egypt against the Morsi administration. In the aftermath of the coup, the US administration also supported the military coup in Egypt and tolerated the human rights violations in the country. This gave the Sisi regime the green light to crush the Muslim Brotherhood movement with the help of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Throughout this process, Turkish efforts to support democracy and Muslim Brotherhood, and the opposition to the military coup were isolated by other regional actors with the exception of Qatar. Antagonism over the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt continues to compromise relations between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and UAE, which is one of the important obstacles to easing political tensions.
Finally, these countries are yet to explain allegations that the US and the UAE were behind the coup attempt that took place on July 15, 2016 in Turkey. The US media conducted an intense smear campaign against the Erdogan administration before the coup attempt, and continue to host the FETO leader Fetullah Gülen as well as issuing residency permits to several high-level FETO members who fled Turkey after the coup attempt by the United States. For Ankara, these facts provide clear evidence that Washington was behind the coup attempt. Furthermore, Turkish officials claimed that Ankara obtained intelligence information about the significant role played by the UAE in financing the July 15 coup attempt. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that an Arab country spent 3 billion dollars to support the 15 July coup attempt, and consequently several experts agreed that this country was the UAE.
The Saudi Arabia – Iran Conflict and Turkey’s Position
Understanding the transformations in Saudi Arabia resulting from regional and global developments is vital to Turkey. One of the most important determinants of Turkey's new position will be the extent of Saudi success in regional politics; Riyadh’s endeavors in this regard have not been successful over the past few years. Despite the support of the United States in Syria, Saudi Arabia has not succeeded in its power struggle with Iran. Riyadh has encountered similar consequences in Yemen. Finally, the political blockade, which was launched against Qatar in June with the support of countries such as UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, has yet to produce tangible results.
On the other hand, Iran is another regional actor that will play a determining role in forming the new Turkish strategy. Despite previous tensions, Turkey has not perceived direct threats from Iran in recent years. The growing influence of Iran in the region and Ankara's dependence on Iran, especially for energy supply, will be important determinants in the construction of future Gulf and Middle East policies of Ankara.
It remains unclear how the power struggle in Saudi Arabia will be reflected in relations with Iran. Indeed, Iran's regional influence and military capacity is increasing across the region. Iran is directly involved in the Syrian war with its own troops on the ground, and has become more influential throughout the region by way of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq and Houthis in Yemen. The Saudi administration is nervously monitoring these developments. Turkey has an important responsibility to reduce the rising tension and to ensure consensus among the parties.