The unpredictable Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape is heading toward new dynamics, where the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is positioning itself against a Turkish-Iranian axis.
Since the consolidation of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s power through a referendum in April 2017, Turkey is once again gearing up for the revival of Ottoman-era dominance in the Middle East. But this swift resurgence of Turkey is not being seen through the lens of admiration in the House of Saud.
The history of the confrontation between Arabs and Turks has never allowed the emergence of a comfortable rapprochement between Riyadh and Ankara, and the Qatar standoff has once again revealed the bitter rivalry between the Wahhabi stronghold in Riyadh and the Salafi Muslim Brotherhood power base in Ankara.
The war of words between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, followed by recent rhetorical remarks on Turkey and Iran made by the Saudi crown prince in Egypt, has made it clear that rapprochement between Ankara and Riyadh is a dim hope. Turkey’s dream of reviving the old Ottoman Empire is a direct challenge to the House of Saud’s hegemony in the region, whose founder rebelled against the Ottoman Turks to establish his kingdom.
Salafi-Wahhabi race has Western blessings
The two radical schools of thought of Islam were always in a race to overshadow each other to project themselves as the leading force of Islamic brethren across the globe. The Wahhabi sect offers a more extremist viewpoint on Islam that preaches intolerance and sectarian hatred, and its bitterness toward Shia Iran is widely known. The Salafi viewpoint of Islam offers a more flexible back yard for values that are unacceptable under Wahhabi belief, though again this also depends on which interpretation could possibly prevail at this moment of history, thus making it more suitable for the Iranian state to get along with.
The two schools of thought are mostly predominant in Sunni-majority countries. While Saudi Arabia pursues Wahhabism through donations via non-governmental organizations, training of scholars and by means of extremist organizations, Salafi ideology is mainly spread by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood has branches and affiliations throughout the Arab world, and like-minded organizations are present in Bangladesh and in Pakistan, respectively the second- and third-largest Muslim-populated countries. Both Wahhabi and Salafi schools try to consolidate their influences in Muslim-populated countries in order to maintain their dominance, and all these actions take place with the tacit approval of their Western allies.
The Saudi influence on the Muslim world entered a declining trend as its links with extremist organizations started to unfold after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in the US, and the vacuum left by Saudi Arabia was taken over by either Turkey or Iran. Iranian influence was mainly limited to Shia Muslims, while Saudi influence on the Sunni populace was slowly substituted by the Muslim Brotherhood movement backed by Turkey and Qatar.
A cold war to dominate the Sunni Arab world soon ensued in Egypt, when a popular uprising in 2011 during the now-infamous Arab Spring saw the downfall of a powerful Saudi ally in Hosni Mubarak. Elections the following year saw the victory of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This was seen by Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies as a blow to the status quo of the Middle East. It meant Egypt falling into the Turkish sphere of influence. Saudi Arabia was determined to see that this did not happen, and after a round of bloody protests in 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted in a coup d’état by the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This triggered a media campaign from pro-Turkey and pro-Qatar media outlets to undermine Sisi’s credibility, by highlighting his regime’s often brutal crackdowns on dissent in Egypt.
Kurds uniting Turkey and Iran
But one development that has the potential to bring Ankara and Tehran on to the same podium is the Kurdish question. While the Iranian and Turkish governments have seen the Kurds as a hostile entity, a threat to the sovereignty of Iran and Turkey alike, Saudi Arabia has found them to be a key instrument to exert influence among the non-Arab populace of the Middle East. The Kurds are predominantly followers of the Sunni school of thought, and they nurture a significant voice of dissent against both Turkey and Shia Iran. The majority of the Kurdish populace in the Middle East resides in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, with a small fraction residing in Syria.
When Masoud Barzani in Iraqi Kurdistan declared the holding of an independence referendum, Saudi Arabia decided to up its stakes behind the Kurds. While Riyadh publicly urged for the maintenance of Iraqi unity, behind the scenes a series of emissaries encouraged Barzani in his project to split the Iraqi state and start to undermine the territorial integrity of Turkey and Iran.
Although the Barzani-led project in Iraq failed, Saudi Arabia did not halt its intention to back the Kurds. As the Iraqi government is now under the influence of Iran, Kurds offer a window to the House of Saud to counter the influence of Iran. The Saudi king’s offer to mediate between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds after the meltdown between them due the referendum made the intention of Saudi Arabia to face Iran and Turkey alongside the Kurds very clear.
The emergence of the Syrian Kurdish bloc led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as a major player in Syria has forced Turkey to re-evaluate its Middle Eastern paradigm. Iran too sees the Kurdish ascendency in Syria and Iraq with concern, as this will give Iranian Kurds impetus to revitalize their insurgency, and has already accused the Saudi regime of fanning the fire.
What Saudi can expect from Turkey and Iran
Rising cooperation in trade between Ankara and Tehran has been made possible amid growing cooperation between them in Syria. The two countries agreed to use their respective national currencies for bilateral trade in the coming days. Understanding common interests for maintaining territorial integrity, they are also sharing military intelligence to combat threats.
Restraining the Kurds is imperative for both Turkey and Iran for the preservation of their territorial integrity. In order to maintain strategic dominance over the Shiite spectrum, Iran will readily concede Turkish leadership over the Sunni world at the expense of Saudi Arabia, its arch-rival. Tehran’s establishment will give preference to a friendlier Middle Eastern power having convergent views over Kurds than to a radically unpredictable Saudi Arabia. From that angle, a joint Turkish-Iranian move to curb the Kurdish rise in the region cannot be ruled out.
On the other hand, Turkey will have a strategic interest in seeing a Shiite crescent encircling the Saudi monarchy. As Qatar, another wealthy Gulf monarchy housing the most formidable media houses of the Middle East, is now in the orbit of Turkish-Iranian axis after the embargo, while the Saudi quagmire in Yemen is getting more in the focus of of Gulf media than before, which is helping Iran’s cause in the conflict.
The Turkish call to form a massive Islamic coalition to face Israel will be seen in the House of Saud as a counterweight to its multi-nation military coalition dubbed as a “Muslim NATO.” The Saudi-led coalition announced in late 2015 did not include Iran, while the Turkish model of Islamic military coalition will. Saudi Arabia’s resolve to reassert its position of dominance will now face a new alliance of Turkey and Iran, which will be bolstered by a massive Qatari media machine.