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Turkey’s challenge is the sectarian animosity fuelling Saudi-Iran standoff

Despite their regional political rivalry, Turkey has maintained its relations with Muslim rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since the Ottoman war with Safavid Persia almost 400 years ago, Turkey and its political predecessors have sought to stabilise its links with Iran and its previous political manifestations. The shared Sunni doctrine of Turkey and Saudi Arabia ensures a near-inviolable connection between the two.

Over the past few decades, the three nations have understood the need to settle serious political differences. It seems, though, that confrontation is inevitable.

Syria has been the catalyst for the tension between Turkey and Saudi Arabia on one side, and Turkey and Iran on the other, not least because of the latter’s backing of Bashar Al-Assad. For Saudi Arabia, the threat stems from Iranian intervention in Bahrain and Yemen. With Syria turning into the battlefield for proxy wars — Turkey has the tentative support of NATO and the US; Iran’s position is backed by Russia — the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar manage to support diverse groups among the Syrian opposition.

The execution of the Saudi Shia political dissident Shaikh Nimr Al-Nimr last week has exposed the supposed political rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran as a much more serious sectarian and religious animosity. If this turns into a full-on confrontation there will be terrifying repercussions across the region.

It is surprising that the level of turbulence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen which sees Saudi and Iran on opposing sides has not caused Riyadh to sever ties with Tehran, and yet the attack on the Saudi Embassy in the Iranian capital by mobs protesting against Al-Nimr’s execution has seen a cut in diplomatic relations.

Saudi Arabia has mobilised its allies, such as Sudan, the UAE and Qatar, who have either withdrawn their ambassadors or downgraded their diplomatic representation in Iran. However, Egypt and Turkey did not; indeed, Turkish bureaucrats called for self-control on both sides.

Erdogan’s Turkey used to be renowned as a pragmatic country which always acted in accordance with its national interest; policies were not based on religious reactions. Surprisingly, though, Turkey has a completely radical attitude toward the question of Iran and Egypt.

Saudi Arabia has been totally indifferent to the Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest Sunni movement in the Arab world, and has maintained its backing of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt. Erdogan, meanwhile, has declared bluntly that Al-Sisi came to power through a military coup and has no legitimacy. In spite of these differences both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have kept their bilateral relations distinct from regional quarrels.

The question now is whether or not Erdogan and Turkey are being dragged into the anti-Iran Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia. Or is the Turkish president measuring his movements strategically in the political turmoil hitting the whole region?

The Saudi execution of the Shia Imam along with 46 others, most of them alleged to be members of Al-Qaeda, occurred immediately after the visit of Erdogan to Riyadh. According to the media close to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), there were many hot issues on the agenda of Erdogan’s meetings with the Saudi leadership. The most prominent was the severe inconvenience of Iran’s sectarian expansionist approach in the region. This was magnified after King Salman succeeded Abdullah as Saudi monarch; he seems to be following a very different line.

With Turkey and Saudi Arabia infuriated by Iran’s mounting aspirations over the whole Middle East, they are also irritated by the attitude of the West, particularly Washington and its rapprochement with Tehran. The West’s blind eye towards Russian support for Iran in Syria is also an issue.

This explains Erdogan’s criticism of those who condemned Saudi Arabia for the execution of Al-Nimr and the others; the Saudis he insisted, have the same right to uphold their laws as the US, China and even Iran itself have with theirs.

“Thousands of people have been sentenced to death in Egypt,” Erdogan pointed out, “including His Excellency President Morsi, the only freely-elected president. Why don’t you condemn these sentences? Is Morsi a terrorist? Of course he is not.” He also asked why those who condemn Saudi Arabia don’t also criticise those who back Al-Assad, who has killed more than 400,000 of his people, displaced millions and is starving people to death.

Erdogan’s Turkey is not naïve enough to be pulled into a coalition for which it is not ready, but it seems that the new Saudi-Turkish alliance is an effort by the Sunnis to form a bloc against the Shia hegemony that is backed, apparently, by the hypocrisy and new power game that the West is playing in the region. Turkey, which flourished by staying away from religious battles, is becoming part of a sectarian polarity willingly for the sake of blocking expansionist Iran.

We need to ask how Turkey can trust the Arabs bearing in mind their recent condemnation of Ankara’s intrusion in Mosul. And how Turkey can simply forget the Arab League denunciation of its practices in both Syria and Iraq.

Erdogan, though, believes that the Arab dictators will not affect Turkey’s bilateral relations and its strategic depth in the Middle East and North Africa region. In fact, the Turkish president reaffirms repeatedly that Turkey’s goal is to anchor Turkish-Saudi relations for the good of the whole region. In the meantime, King Salman has assured him that Saudi Arabia backs Turkey’s no-fly zone in Syria.

Egypt seems to be the main obstacle for the complete success of this coalition. Turkey will not normalise relations with Egypt unless four conditions are met: ousted President Mohamed Morsi must be released; the death penalties issued against thousands of political opponents must be dropped; all political prisoners must be freed; and the ban on political parties must be lifted to restore the democratic process.

This looks like wishful thinking, for Al-Sisi will never accept such conditions. Even so, the different views held by Saudi Arabia and Turkey regarding Egypt will not affect their “partnership against sectarianism”; it’s a point that Erdogan always emphasises.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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