RIYADH — Fast moving events in the Middle Eastern landscape in recent years have gravitated Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two regional heavyweights in this region, towards each other. To respond to significant challenges in their immediate neighborhoods, the governments of both countries had no choice but to synchronize some of their foreign policy actions in the past, like shoring up the fragile government in sectarian-ridden Lebanon and pushing for an internal reconciliation between divided Palestinian groups, some with success and others not so.
To be frank, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have their own differences, which are not easy to overcome but not a major hindrance to cooperation either. Though both are Sunni, Turks represent a moderate Sufi-oriented Islam, while Saudis subscribe to a hard-line Wahhabi version. The ways the government functions, the judiciary acts and parliament operates in both countries are completely different from each other. There were times when both did not see eye-to-eye on regional issues, as was the case with Turkey’s early call on Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to step down, while Saudis stood behind him until the last minute.
But two important developments precipitated the closer Turkish-Saudi partnership, putting their differences aside. The first and most important change is the creeping Iranian Shiite influence in the Middle East and beyond, which may turn into a destabilizing factor for a number of Muslim countries. The mullah regime in Tehran has started to exert heavy influence on the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government after the fall of Saddam’s Sunni rule thanks to the US. It is obvious that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite himself, is courting Iran closely while pushing for the consolidation of his power by using the courts, police and military to persecute and prosecute Sunni minority leaders. The arrest warrant on questionable terror charges for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, just days after the US officially ended the war and withdrew its forces is just a tip of the iceberg that is the simmering crisis in this country. There is no question about Iranian involvement in this latest play of events.
The failure of Turkish engagement with Iran during the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s term despite repeated overtures from Ankara left no choice for Turkey but to rely increasingly on Saudi Arabia as the backbone of its Middle Eastern diplomacy drive. Turkey’s cozying up with Iran went to the extent that Ankara had to spend a great deal of political capital on behalf of Tehran by saying “no” to the UN Security Council decision to slap another round of sanctions on Iran because of its controversial nuclear program. In return for this big favor, Turkey received nothing substantial from Iran. The rationale for Mr. Ahmet Davutoğlu, the chief proponent of Iranian engagement, who convincingly argued at the time that engaging Iran would help restrain Tehran from flexing its muscle in other theaters, thereby creating fewer problems for Turkey and its allies to deal with, unfortunately fell apart. Davutoğlu’s prediction turned out to be a false hope as an emboldened Iran pushed much harder for Shiite dominance in Iraq and Lebanon at the expense of others.
One example of this engagement-turned-into-bitter-fight was seen in the last Iraqi elections, during which Iran actively supported, both in manpower and funds, Maliki’s re-election bid and ignored Turkey’s silent warnings of meddling in an explosive sectarian rift. In response, Turkey had to support Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya Alliance, a more representative coalition that included both Sunnis and Shiites. Though Allawi’s alliance won a partial victory, Maliki retained the seat as prime minister following controversial court rulings that banned close to 500 candidates from running. Ankara came out as a sore loser, while Tehran gained the upper hand in the Iraqi administration. Now Turkey desperately needs the Saudis to become much more engaged in Iraq to tilt the balance of power.
The second development that made the Turkish-Saudi partnership more than necessary is what has been going on in Syria for the last nine months. The brutal crackdown on civilian protesters, mostly Sunnis, by security forces loyal to the Shiite Alawites who control the Syrian government, forced Turkey and Saudi Arabia to take a harsher line with the Bashar al-Assad regime. For Saudis, Assad’s fall means the loss of a strategic foothold Iran maintained in the heart of the Arab world. Riyadh has been successful in rallying the rest of the Arabs to suspend Syria’s membership in the Arab League. Turkey, of course, played its own part, aggressively lobbying Arab states for this hard-line approach on Syria as well.
The deepening of the Saudi-Turkish partnership would certainly be a game changer in any calculation related to the Middle East. Even Russia and China, the two members of the UN Security Council reluctant on Iran and Syria, may have to reconsider their positions on these two countries if they see a united front from regional actors Turkey and Saudi Arabia. When push comes to shove, Russia and China may very well be willing to drop both Iran and its proxy, Assad’s Syria, to salvage their important ties with the Turkey-Saudi duo. Turkey is Russia’s important trading partner and China, the world’s biggest importer of crude, gets almost half of what Saudi Arabia produces in oil. It is also understood that the Saudis have already addressed Chinese concerns in terms of energy security if the oil supply from Iran is to be cut off.
On a bilateral level, the Saudis would be more than happy to get Turkey on their side to counter Iranian Shiite penetration using Turkish traditional as well as newfound influences in a number of countries. In return, Turkey would keep fueling the growth projections for its robust economy with Saudi sovereign investment funds, easier market access for Turkish goods and favorable state tenders for Turkish companies in Saudi Arabia and Saudi-led Gulf markets. Let’s not forget the sweetener in this deal for Ankara. Saudi cover for Turkish involvement in Arab affairs would also ease concerns over neo-Ottoman allegations invoked by anti-Turkey groups. It’s a win-win situation for both.