Turkey vs. Saudi Arabia: Will the U.S. Have to Pick a Side?

Mohammed bin Salman and Recep Tayyip ErdoganMohammed bin Salman and Recep Tayyip Erdogan

by Derek Davison

In the mid-twentieth century, U.S. Middle East policy rested primarily on its alliances with three major regional players: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The alliance with Iran was, of course, broken in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But apart from a few rough patches, Washington maintained its ties with Saudi Arabia, mostly over oil, and with Turkey, which as a NATO member state was a critical U.S. ally during the Cold War.

Those alliances have remained in place into the twenty-first century, even though the Cold War is over and, between the rise of renewable energy and the U.S. fracking boom, Saudi Arabian oil isn’t nearly as vital to U.S. national security as it once was. But both alliances have seen some fraying in recent years. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian turn and U.S. support for the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria have injected new tensions into the Washington-Ankara relationship. And the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, has caused many in DC to question the wisdom of the Washington-Riyadh alliance, though those concerns haven’t yet led to any major policy changes.

The relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia has also been challenged by disagreements between the two governments over the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and Qatar. Increasingly, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are positioned as rivals, each with pretensions to Middle Eastern influence or even hegemony. It’s not clear whether they can continue to coexist without one or the other—or both—backing down. This has made it more difficult for the United States to maintain its ties with both countries.

Now a new complication has been added to the mix, one that may finally cause a break between Ankara and Riyadh and force the United States to choose between its two allies. The brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 has left the Turkish government demanding answers and pointing fingers at the highest levels of the Saudi kingdom, at Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) himself. Erdogan himself has all but accused MbS personally of ordering Khashoggi’s killing (an accusation supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency). Now that the Saudis have finally admitted that their personnel intentionally killed Khashoggi, Turkish prosecutors are demanding that two of the crown prince’s closest advisers be extradited to Turkey to face trial for the murder.

Walking a Tightrope

At a November 30 briefing organized by the Middle East Policy Council, Sabanci University Professor Bulent Aras argued that Erdogan is trying to walk a very fine line between using the Khashoggi incident to bolster Turkish regional leadership and completely alienating the Saudis, in part by focusing his attention on Mohammad bin Salman:

If we come to the Khashoggi case, it certainly helped Erdogan to gain moral ground in regional politics. And I think this is the start of this rationality discussion that—you know, that hurts Saudi Arabia-UAE line in the region. It’s not a secret that Ankara would utilize any possible means to limit Mohammad bin Salman’s role in Saudi politics and probably to encourage the other moderate elements, if there are any, in Saudi politics. Even to some degree we hear the expectation is not to change Saudi domestic landscape, but some progress will be considered a success in Turkey.

 

We are here referring to a very delicate relationship with Saudi Arabia after the Khashoggi case. On the one hand, Turkey certainly wants to have access to Gulf finance, but on the other hand, it finds itself in the middle of this dangerous Turkish-Iranian rivalry. And here there is an emergent rival leader in Saudi Arabia, so what Turkey can do is to use the Khashoggi case to weaken Mohammad bin Salman but keeping King Salman and the Saudi Arabia aside: it’s a tightrope. But, however, there is a belief that this can work to preserve the relations with Saudi Arabia while weakening Mohammad bin Salman’s role in Saudi politics or his assertive line against Turkey. But that’s a matter of time to see.

Although the Turkish-Saudi rivalry is of most concern for the U.S., the hostility between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates may ultimately be more problematic. As the Arab Gulf States Institute’s Hussein Ibish pointed out, the UAE has been more implacable on the Muslim Brotherhood (which Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party strongly support) than the Saudis:

UAE is the party in the region that is categorically opposed, unequivocally to all forms of political Islam and the politicization of Islam and the Islamization of politics. Any version of that is anathema to Abu Dhabi’s perspective and to UAE’s perspective. They are committed to what amounts to secular politics in the region and to separation of religion and politics. Now, this, of course, is not really true of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia in a post-Arab Spring moment, particularly under MbS, is certainly anti-Muslim Brotherhood, to a very large extent, and anti-Islamist in a more general sense, in a way. But you can’t have Saudi Arabia standing for a total break between religion and politics, because Saudi Arabia presents itself as a religious state, as the custodian of the mosques and as the pure Islamic state, where the Quran is its constitution and all that stuff, so it’s not possible.

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto leader of the UAE, is widely considered to be MbS’s mentor, and has undoubtedly encouraged MbS’s anti-Turkish foreign policy. So, any Turkish-Saudi rapprochement would have to begin with MbS distancing himself from his closest regional compatriot.

Confronting Iran

This being a Washington DC event, it’s unsurprising that the MEPC panel’s solution to closing the Saudi-Turkey rift was for more U.S. leadership, and in this case “leadership” meaning “confronting Iran.” Ibish praised the Trump administration for doing just that:

I think what you’ve seen is…a Trump administration policy that’s becoming much more coherent in Syria and is focused on doing exactly what the Gulf countries were hoping for, which is working, first of all, on the ground to block Iranian interests, especially from creating a military corridor through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean—that seems to be out. A year and a half ago we said that may well happen, but it’s not going to, largely because of the Trump administration not leaving Syria. But in addition, there’s a move by the Trump administration to start a dialogue with Turkey, especially, but also with Russia to try to see what can be done to squeeze, to marginalize the Iranians to make sure that Tehran is not the big winner in Syria and limit their gains. So all of that kind of indicates the way in which Saudi Arabia and Turkey can still find themselves on roughly on the same side.

For the DC foreign policy establishment, of course, Iran has been the root of all Middle Eastern evils since at least the end of the Cold War. But after nearly 40 years of mostly unremitting U.S. hostility toward Iran and of a U.S. regional policy that has accommodated almost every Saudi desire, it is absurd to argue that U.S. leadership has produced anything more than the illusion of regional stability—and really not even that, given that the Iraq War is part of that legacy of U.S. leadership.

The Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) was certainly not a panacea—though the Trump administration’s efforts to sabotage it prevent any reckoning of the benefits it might have ultimately generated. But the deal at least offered the potential for the United States to rebalance its role in the Middle East and to bring Iran into a regional diplomatic framework if not to totally rebuild Washington’s former regional alliance structure. Instead, the Trump administration has eschewed diplomacy and given the Saudis—and especially Mohammad bin Salman—carte blanche to run roughshod over the region, as the people of Yemen can attest. That indulgence is what led MbS to feel confident enough to order Khashoggi’s murder in the first place, leading to the diplomatic quandary Washington now faces.

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.

SHOW 2 COMMENTS

2 Comments

  1. Erdogan and Mohammed Bin Salman are both sides of the same coins, they are both autocratic despots. One jails journalists and God knows do what while the other kills.

  2. Both Erdegan and M-butcher of-Saudi (MbS) are ruthless dictators and power hungry. They will do anything like detention and robbing of other’s wealth, prison or killing of their enemies in order to stay in power!

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