The antagonism of Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Turkey has been incremental and provocative. Nevertheless, Turkey is maintaining its de-escalation strategy with a conciliatory approach. For how long, though? Can Turkey remain tolerant? What cards can it play against the reckless calculations of some of the Gulf monarchies? These are important questions.
The current clique heading the Saudi royal family regards Turkey as a threat simply because Ankara doesn’t give the current leadership in Riyadh the chance to accomplish its plans. In 2017, Turkey played a major role to rein in the Saudis’ intended invasion of Qatar; it was a checkmate move.
Turkey’s support for the Arab Spring uprisings infuriated Gulf monarchies which believed that they were contagious revolutions and an imminent threat to their own domestic stability. Ankara has also accused the UAE of backing the 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After the fall of Daesh and its self-proclaimed caliphate in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer Al-Sabhan visited the area and met the Raqqa Civil Council controlled by the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorist organisation that has been fighting Turkey for more than 40 years. Most importantly, the renowned Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by fellow countrymen in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Turkey has played a major role in implicating Saudi Arabian officials in the killing and holding Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman responsible.
The Saudi-UAE campaign against Turkey hasn’t eased; Saudi and Emirati media outlets are forever calling for Arab tourists to stop visiting Turkey, citing fictional or exaggerated reports of crimes, and the alleged kidnapping and harassment of Saudi women in the country. Saudi Arabia has also designated the former Ottoman Caliphate as an “occupation” of Arab land in a new curriculum. The Saudi-UAE bloc is even using drama to distort history, with an Emirati-produced soup opera called Kingdom of Fire which focuses on Ottoman rule not as the zenith of Muslim unity but as a dark time for the Arabs. Most recently, Turkey was accused on Saudi television of working to spread coronavirus in Saudi Arabia and Arab countries.
Turkey’s response to the immature policies of the Emirati and Saudi princes has been proportionate to their provocative and hostile actions. The authorities in Ankara have recently blocked Saudi and UAE state-owned news websites in response to the Saudis blocking TRT Arabi and Anadolu Agency. Interestingly, the move by Saudi Arabia came after Turkish prosecutors indicted 20 Saudi citizens for the Khashoggi murder, which soured relations between Ankara and Riyadh.
Since the 2018 murder, Turkey has adopted a “drip-drip” approach to mobilise the international media to expose the true face of Bin Salman and his supporters in the West. If such a crime had been committed by any other country, Turkey might have been more decisive; in a sense, therefore, it still considers its relations with Saudi Arabia to be based on Islamic brotherhood. Ankara’s strategy is to capitalise on the interests of Middle Eastern nations and minimise the gains of their rulers and amateur adventurers, like the Saudi-UAE princes, who are clearly interested in demonising Turkey across the region.
This doesn’t mean that Turkey will let the defamatory campaigns and allegations pass unanswered. In response to the Saudi campaign, Turkey claims that Riyadh is concealing the number of coronavirus victims among Muslim pilgrims, hindering international efforts to contain the pandemic. Moreover, Turkey offered a bounty of four million Turkish lira for any information leading to the capture of “the Emirati mercenary” Mohammed Dahlan for his alleged part in the 2016 coup attempt.
To a certain extent, Turkey counts on a change in the Saudi royal family. It is believed that the Crown Prince deposed by King Salman in June 2017, Muhammad Bin Nayef, was closer to Turkey and an adversary of the UAE and that was why he was removed from his position. Until and unless such a change occurs, though, Turkey will not hesitate to take all measures necessary to protect its interests.
In Libya, for instance, President Erdogan is supporting the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord, not only logistically but also by deploying military hardware and fighters in the ongoing civil war against the Saudi-UAE backed General Khalifa Haftar. This proxy conflict is expected to intensify in various parts of the Middle East and North Africa. It has been reported that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi is making strenuous and tenacious efforts to get the Syrian regime to break a ceasefire with Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib province and escalate the struggle against Turkey.
For the Saudi-led front, it’s not only a matter of seeking the leadership of the Muslim world; it’s also about an ideology that is based on the exclusion of differences of opinion or perspective. Former US President George W Bush demonstrated a similar mentality when he told the world, post-9/11, “You are either with us or with the terrorists.” Turkey doesn’t buy into this rhetoric and won’t back down as it protects its interests and supports the aspirations the people suffering under oppression and dictatorships, wherever they might be.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.