The New Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s New King

*Authors note: For a far more detailed analysis about the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, please read my RUSI colleague, Michael Stephens’, excellent piece over at Al Jazeera English. 

In recent years, the Turkish-Saudi relationship has come under strain, owing to the two countries’ numerous differences about the role of political Islam in the Middle East. The AKP’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, combined with Saudi Arabia’s efforts to roll back the group’s political gains after the Arab Spring have pitted these two powerful states against one another in numerous political – and, at times, military – proxy battles. The current dynamics in the relationship do not portend any major changes. Turkey remains wedded to what it is calling a “principled foreign policy” of support for its conception of democracy (more on this in a moment). Saudi Arabia, in contrast, is facing numerous challenges, from the crisis in Yemen to the unique threat posed by the Islamic State. The current Turkish-Saudi relationship will have implications for US, Western, and Arab policymakers, as they seek to continue their efforts to roll back the Islamic State’s military gains in Iraq and Syria.

Foreign Policy: The Drivers of Turkish-Saudi Tensions

Following the AKP’s election in 2002, it initially adopted a multipronged approach to foreign policy that blended certain elements of strategic depth with realpolitik (which the AKP dubbed ostpolitik, in reference to the West German Cold War-era foreign policy of normalising relations with its communist neighbour, the German Democratic Republic). The result was that Ankara’s early handling of regional affairs was at times at odds with a number of Davutoglu’s assertions about failed political ideologies in much of the Middle East.

Turkey abandoned ostpolitik at the height of the Arab Revolts and sought to empower its preferred political allies: The Muslim Brotherhood. This policy was not at odds with Turkey’s historic approach to regional affairs; in fact, in post-invasion Iraq and in Palestine, Ankara pursued similar policies. However, their actions in Egypt – which differed considerably from their handling of the Arab revolts in Tunisia and, at first, Libya and Syria – the AKP’s policy of unabashed support for the Brotherhood placed it on a collision course with Saudi Arabia.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, most notably in his book, Strategic Depth, makes the case that the “archaic regimes” in the Middle East are illegitimate, destined to fail, and eventually be replaced by government’s more representative of what he calls “the Muslim masses.” In 2011, he paraphrased his lengthy argument in an interview with AUC Egypt. In response to a question about whether or not Turkey “saw the Arab Spring coming,” he said:

From our point of view, it was expected; we were aware of the urgent need for change and democratic transformation in the region. As you might remember, in my book Strategic Depth (April 2001) I have underlined that the stability and political experience in the Arab states were not based on social legitimacy, and that stability was worthless. Likewise, I have also asserted that the transformation in Arab nationalism and the political legitimacy crises in the Arab world would affect the political leadership structures of those countries. As such, from the early years of the previous decade, we started emphasizing the importance of introducing political and economic reforms and upholding dignity, human rights and freedoms, as well as universal values such as the rule of law, transparency, accountability, and gender equality in the region.

In 2012, Davutoglu sought to enumerate the new “principles” of Turkish foreign policy. The principles paraphrase assertions made in the book, but are nevertheless relevant to help understand the AKP’s perception of the Saudi regime – and more importantly, how it it is representative of a faux-pact made with Western policymakers that explains the root causes of instability in the Middle East. According to Davutoglu:

…We believed that the youth demonstrating in the streets represented the future of the region and their aspirations needed to be taken into account…In fact, this was a delayed transformation and was long overdue. All these transitions to democracy…should have been achieved in the Middle East in the 1990s as the Cold War’s downfall was instigating an international wave of democratization. But, unfortunately at the time, the preference of major powers was more for stability than democracy in this region, and the archaic regimes continued existence with their backing. As the region was undergoing such a political earthquake, we aspired to position ourselves on the right side of the history and decided to make our humble contribution to this epic democratic struggle.

In the article, “The Clash of Interests: An Explanation of the World [Dis]Order,” Davutoglu blamed the region’s instability on the import of Western political constructs like ethnic nationalism, arguing that the rulers who have embraced these concepts have lost their political legitimacy, having to rely instead on repression to remain in power. In parallel, the West adopted the discourse of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996) and Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992), to justify a post-Cold War policy of political expansion.In the words of Davutoglu:

This approach becamethe intellectual vanguardand secular baptismal creed of the universal democratic crusade in the name of New World Order. It was found convenient by US foreign poliry makers because it provided them, during the Gulf War, with the necessary political rhetoric needed to mobilize the whole world with the necessary political rhetoric needed to mobilize the whole world for the achievement of their own strategic planning in the Gulf War.

The Muslim World, he argued, was under threat, owing the rapid expansion of “Western civilization.” The people who resisted the wholesale adoption of Western norms – whether they be the distinctly western concept of Secularism, capitalism, etc. – were dubbed as “backwards” and thus subjected to orientalist – and Islamaphobic – description. As part of this discourse, the West, he argued, inflated the threat posed terrorism and unjustly equated it with Islam. The Arab rulers, in turn, sought to take advantage of this emerging narrative and rebranded themselves as bulwarks against the threat posed by “radical Islam.” These “archaic regimes” entered into an agreement with the West: The West should maintain their support for the regimes, despite them not being being democratic, because both countries had an interest in hyping up the threat posed by “Islamic terror.” For the West, it retained its influence in the Gulf – which would be eroded by a transition to a more democratic system of governance. And the Gulf monarchies retained their support from the West – which the rulers needed to retain their hold on power.

The Arab Spring, the AKP has argued, upset this dynamic and was a natural manifestation of the people’s desire to move away from dictatorship and towards a government more representative of the “Muslim masses.” In this regard, the war in Syria is about far more than just the ousting of Assad for the AKP. The war has, in fact, become a microcosm for the AKP’s approach to regional affairs. The increasing calls for the West and its Arab coalition partners to cooperated with Assad – and Iran, for that matter – is directly at odds with this paradigm and, more broadly, the AKP’s vision. (One must keep in mind that this vision was not entirely incorporated in to Turkish foreign policy until 2012.) Moreover, it is representative of what the AKP feels is wrong with the region: The West, in an effort to prevent “Islamists” from gaining power will make the choice to reach an agreement with a secular dictator. This dictator will, in turn, receive the tacit support of Arab regimes, whose very survival depends on these dynamics. It is a lose-lose for Ankara. And this is why – beyond all of the very real and rational reasons to target Assad’s forces as a means to end the Syrian civil war – that they are so focused on Assad.

This approach explains this statement:

More broadly, this point of view about the future of the region paints a picture of continued tension with Saudi Arabia. In general, the two share an interest in overthrowing Assad and, in general, share a discomfort about the Houthi advance in Yemen (In this interview, for example, Davutoglu pulls no punches and calls Iran “sectarian” and lists Saudi Arabia as being one of many “political actors that are scared of democracy. These states prefer autocrats to govern their country…”) Thus, beyond this narrow overlap of interest, the two countries have a sharply different world view and conception for the future of region. For Turkey, Saudi Arabia is an “archaic regime,” wedded to a foreign policy that bears considerable responsibility for regional instability. Turkey, in contrast, is standing up for human rights and democracy For the Saudis, Turkey is seen as a source of instability, owing to its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and, in Syria, a slew of rebel groups that the Kingdom has deemed too radical.


About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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