Saudi-Turkish alliance: will it change the region?

Saudi-Turkish alliance: will it change the region?
Comment: Saudi-Turkish rapprochement is based on a shared perspective on many key issues and could have a profound impact on the region, says Majed Azzam.
5 min read
20 Apr, 2015
Erdogan and Mohammad bin Nayef [Anadolu]

It has happened many times before, but Saudi-Turkish rapprochement seems different this time.

The two country's clear and urgent priorities, their shared interests, and the reprioritisation of the discussion about their differences is new. There seems to be a real convergence of opinion over interpretations of the region and developments in it, and especially over the common threats the two nations and the region face.

In the past decade, Riyadh was wary of Turkish engagement with the region. Saudi Arabia also dealt carefully with the experience of the AKP party in Turkey. The AKP is a conservative party with an Islamist base, but in a democratic country.

Tension builds during the Arab Spring

Saudi Arabia grew increasingly anxious as Turkey was seen as a model worth emulating to resolve the crises of the Arab world. This open mistrust and the obvious contrast between the two sides grew bigger with after the Arab revolutions erupted.

These were backed by Ankara without reservation, with Turkey calling for the inclusion of Islamist parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood movement in political life around the region, and for the people to have the final say when it comes to their government in free and fair elections based on national consensus and the renunciation of violence.

Saudi Arabia grew increasingly anxious as Turkey was seen as a model worth emulating to resolve the crises of the Arab world.

Riyadh, much more conservative than Turkey, viewed those revolutions with considerable apprehension. The Arab uprisings did away with the previous status quo, which Saudi Arabia had learned to deal with in terms of its vision and interests. The apprehension increased as Islamist parties linked to the Brotherhood took power democratically, and Riyadh feared an Islamist democratic model would prevail in the region.

Despite the visible accord between Saudi Arabia and Turkey over major issues including Syria, Iraq and recently Yemen, differences over the changes in Egypt profoundly affected the relationship.

Turkey supported the political and democratic process in Egypt, and called for the resolution of differences in a democratic and constitutional way.

Saudi Arabia, became even more anxious after the Brotherhood took power in a rushed and uncalculated manner. Saudi Arabia backed without reservation the coup led by General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi on July 3, 2013. Riyadh could easily have sought a different settlement.

After the coup, Riyadh sought to eradicate the Brotherhood and eliminate Islamists from the regional landscape. Saudi Arabia backed counter-revolutions in the Arab world, and declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

A new king, a new approach

However, after the death of King Abdullah, the new Saudi leadership moved its priorities away from the Brotherhood and focused on Iranian influence.

Saudi Arabia pushed the notion that Iranian expansion and encroachment was the main threat, in addition to the Islamic State group.

The new Saudi approach was parallel to the approach Turkey had taken from the beginning.

It was no surprise that the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was among the first to arrive in Riyadh to attend the funeral of the late king, and one of the first foreign leaders to visit Riyadh after the change at the helm there.

It is also likely that Ankara will be the first capital that the new king, Salman, will visit.

The two sides have also agreed to increase economic cooperation and joint investments. There were reports that Riyadh would invest $600bn in Turkey, and even if this figure is exaggerated, what matters is that a green light has been given to Saudi businesspeople to invest in Turkey, and open up Saudi tourism in Istanbul, Izmir and Antalya.

A new joint strategic council will be set up to draft policies and oversee their implementation, with active participation from the private sector.

Beyond the economy, defence officials have met to discuss a strategic agreement to exchange expertise and training and even deploy joint forces.

Reassessing priorities

There is clear Saudi accord on Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and even Libya. The countries have agreed to back the constitutional and political process in Yemen, according to Saudi priorities, and reject the Houthi coup, with clear Turkish support for Saudi militaty operations in Yemen.

On Syria, both countries wish to exclude Bashar al-Assad from any political solution. The two sides want to alter the balance of power in Syria and prevent Assad from benefiting from the international operation against the IS.

Saudi Arabia supports Ankara's demand for secure zones on its border with Syria, and a no-fly zone. The two countries are also in accord over a potential political solution in Syria in accordance with the Geneva I communique.

Ankara also wants to draw Riyadh into the Iraqi issue, to fill the vacuum there and prevent Iran's influence from growing. The beginning would be the battle to liberate Mosul, for which Ankara has made preparations in collaboration with Kurdish Peshmerga forces, providing Arab tribes with weapons and training.

The Popular Mobilisation militia would be excluded from the battle, though some role would be given to the Iraqi government to drive out the IS.

Ankara also wants to draw Riyadh into the Iraqi issue, to fill the vacuum there and prevent Iran from dominating the country.

Egypt, the fly in the ointment

The main differences between Turkey and Saudi Arabia are related to Egypt. Nevertheless, this issue has been deferred, with clear signals coming from Riyadh regarding a reconciliation with the Brotherhood and a bid to sponsor a national accord in Egypt to resolve the current situation there.

The goal is for Egypt to become fully enlisted in the new alliance, not only in Yemen but also in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Libya.

In short, we could see a new Arab-Islamic alliance, the main axis of which runs between Riyadh and Ankara. The alliance would include many Arab and Islamic states and forces, and is meant to fill the vacuum left behind by the retreat of US forces.

This alliance would seek to deal with Iran as a neighbouring nation with which there are historical ties and shared interests, but oppose its attempts to dominate four Arab capitals or revive a Persian empire, with Baghdad as its capital.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.