The restoration of brotherly relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia should not be taken lightly. It is not, merely, a political reconciliation between two states that had once been in competition. Rather, it is a remarkable decision by two giant regional powers to join forces to rescue the Middle East from the uncertainties that have been overwhelming the world stage for a while. After months of slow diplomatic exchange between the Turkish and Saudi governments, that initially started in November 2020 on the margin of the G-20 Summit in Riyadh, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by his senior state officials, including Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan, paid a remarkable visit to Riyadh, on April 28th.
Fortunately, the recent political developments on the world stage, and their direct economic and security consequences, have pushed Turkey to change its flawed policies towards the region. In more than one public statement, in recent months, the Turkish President, Erdogan, admitted that Turkey is not benefiting from straining ties with Arabs, especially the Gulf countries. “We need to start a new era in foreign policy, marked by making friends rather than enemies out of the countries with which we share similar thoughts and beliefs;” Erdogan stated.
Before his plane takes off to Saudi Arabia, in the last week of Ramadan, President Erdogan reiterated: "We express at every occasion that we place as much importance on the stability and security of our brothers in the Gulf region as our own… Dialogue and cooperation are necessary for the security and stability of the entire region as threats are growing more and more complex.”
The mutual need for economic and defense cooperation, under the magnifying pressures of the changing global order, is believed to be the key motivator behind this long-delayed rapprochement. However, the prospect of a long-term fruitful cooperation between these two important regional powers extends way beyond their immediate interests on the bilateral level. The Saudi-Turkey decision to finally work together is expected to have a tremendous influence on the future of the Middle East and the surrounding regions, where the two countries are central players; not to exclude the Mediterranean and Africa.
BONDING THE COALITION OF ODDS
By mending the broken ties with Saudi Arabia, Turkey has successfully ticked one of the most important checkboxes on its revised foreign policy agenda and also integrated the missing piece of the puzzle in the “coalition of odds” that is anticipated to lead the future of the Middle East for decades to come.
For better or worse, the Middle East region is rapidly transitioning into a new geopolitical structure, with new centers of influence and diverse agendas of individual and collective priorities. The ongoing transition process started over a decade ago with the eruption of the Arab Spring revolutions (2010 - 2011) and reached a peak point, last summer in August 2021, following the haste and chaotic withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan. The main characteristic defining the new regional order, in light of these unavoidable transitions, is the fracture of Egypt and Syria as the main complementary poles responsible for keeping the region in balance, and the growing reliance on Arab Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia, in designing and leading the future of the Middle East.
The growing pressures of the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, in late 2019, and then the global standoff resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in February of this year, melted down the years-long political impasse in the region and allowed a space for a new alliance of rivals to form. This coalition of odds, which started to take shape after accomplishing the Gulf reconciliation, highlighted by the signing of the Al-Ula Declaration, in January 2021, is composed of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Qatar. Each pair of these four countries stands at opposite spots on the spectrum of political agenda and national strategic goals. However, each of them holds a piece of the geopolitical, geo-economic, and military supremacies that comprise the greater mosaic of power in the Middle East region.
Together this quartet of odds, can contain Iran and mitigate the threats constantly raised by its militia, wreaking havoc all over the region. They can dominate the flow of world trade movement, across the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, thanks to their unique geographic locations and economic outreach in Asia, Europe, and Africa; needless to mention their dominance over the majority of the world’s energy resources. Above all, they can form an unbeatable regional military coalition enhanced by the NATO experience that Turkey enjoys and the massive personnel and armament capabilities of both Turkey and Egypt.
In the thrust of this awakening momentum, Turkey has also been relentlessly reaching out to Israel and Egypt, despite the extensive record of disagreements with each of them on the political agendas and the strategic objectives that are defining their models of governance. The installation of a new government in Israel, that is accommodative of Israeli Arab Islamist politicians made it easier for Ankara and Tel Aviv to start a new page. In March, the Israeli President, Isaac Herzog was warmly welcomed to Ankara by President Erdogan to sign this new page.
In contrast, the deadlock between Cairo and Ankara seems to be too tough to break with the same ease that Turkey experienced with other regional rivals. "We already have relations [with Egypt] but at a low level, between our diplomatic and intelligence services. Relations between our business people continue, too. Positive results [of Saudi-Turkey rapprochement] indicate that these steps can be taken at a higher level," Erdogan said, following Eid Al-Fitr prayers, in response to a journalist's question about the future of Turkey’s reconciliation with Egypt.
Before Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia, during Ramadan, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs invited his Egyptian counterpart, to have Iftar together, in a public statement. However, it seems that the invitation fell on deaf ears. The month of Ramadan has come to an end without a response, or even a media statement, from the Egyptian Foreign Minister. Meanwhile, one of the prominent satellite stations, which is affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood group, and is working from Istanbul has announced closure at the end of April. The closure of this station was on the list of requests offered by the Egyptian state to resume the reconciliation process with Turkey. Yet, Egypt has not made any response to this positive move by the Turkish side. Likewise, some of the media outlets working from Cairo, funded by Abu Dhabi, to attack Ankara, were notified, in March, to stop attacking the Turkish state leadership. Some of them had to close their businesses, as a result
The diplomatic relationship between Turkey and Egypt was painfully severed in 2013, on the background of the Turkish president's support to the falling regime of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, economic relations continued and even improved throughout these years. Under the effect of the peace trend that has been dominating the region, over the past year, Turkey and Egypt, which used to take confronting sides in the Arab Gulf conflict, started to consider fixing their own broken ties. Since then, only two reconciliation meetings have been held, in Cairo and Ankara respectively, between diplomatic bureaucrats. But they led to no tangible progress on the ground.
The irony here is that although the Egypt-Turkey reconciliation is still stumbling on a muddy road, each of Turkey and Egypt were separately able to reconcile with their rivals in the Arab Gulf region, in a record time. In less than one year, Qatar and Egypt, on the one hand, compared to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the other hand, have converted from worst rivals to best allies.
Erdogan’s support to the political Islamist organizations that sought power in the post-Arab Spring era is the main topic around which the rift was broken between Turkey and Arabs, instigating nine years of diplomatic tensions and media wars. Therefore, it is important to think about how the Turkish President is planning to balance his political Islamist ideology with his new foreign policy in the Middle East.
When Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey, in 2002, most Arabs were impressed by the idea that a political leader with an Islamist background could lead a democratic country with success. Turkey’s geographic proximity, familiar history, and cultural and religious similarities with the majority-Muslim countries of the Middle East enhanced this perception. However, this positive perception was dramatically altered by Ankara’s flawed policy towards the region in the post-Arab Spring era. Erdogan’s sharp bias toward Arab political Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, at the expense of preserving healthy state-to-state relationships with Arab states, led to alienating Turkey in its Middle East milieu. After being seen as a role model, Arabs started to look at Turkey as the “other Iran” in the region.
One of the core issues that Erdogan failed to understand, at that time, was that political Islamism in Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia is very unsimilar to political Islamism in the Arab countries, for many political and social reasons. One interesting story to prove that happened in Egypt only a few months after the fall of Mubarak.
In mid-September 2011, the then Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdogan, visited Egypt and some other Arab Spring countries to celebrate the change and transfer his successful experience with the AKP to the young people who initiated the Arab Spring revolutions. In Egypt, Erdogan was festively received by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and was given the exclusive advantage of speaking directly to a public audience at the Cairo Opera House.
In an interview with Egyptian television, during his visit, Erdogan advised the revolutionary youth to “build a secular state based on a new constitution founded on secular principles." He presented Turkey as an ideal model for a democratic state, as he is a Muslim Prime Minister leading a secular state, that respects individual right to be religious or not. Erdogan, also, expressed his confidence in Egypt's ability to build a modern state after the revolution based on three pillars: good public management, improving education, and appropriate organization of state wealth to eliminate corruption.
Erdogan's moderate speech was widely applauded by the political elite and public citizens. However, only one group was offended by Erdogan's words about democracy and the secular constitution. That group was the Muslim Brotherhood, the political Islamist group that once claimed to be the Egyptian version of the Turkish AKP. The Muslim Brotherhood leaders responded to Erdogan’s speech with hostile media statements such as “Egypt does not want advice from Turkey or Erdogan.” On his arrival in Cairo, hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood youth members and leaders lined up outside the airport to receive him. On his departure, they threw him with stones of despise and resentment, only because he did not promote their version of political Islamism that is hostile to democracy and the civil state.
The moral of the story; the political Islamism model in Turkey is inapplicable in Arab countries. The deeply rooted secular values and constitutional base, since its foundation, can easily force the Islamist party in power to abide by its rules. However, this was not possible in the case of Arab Spring countries, where political Islamists are on the far-right edge of ideological extremism and the countries they wanted to rule were torn apart by revolutions and collapsed political structures.
THE CHANGE TO LOOK FOR
After all these years of tensions and misunderstanding between the three angles of the triangle of Turkey, Arabs, and the political Islamist groups, it appears that the Turkish President, Erdogan, has finally found the error that delayed the acceptance of Turkey as a leading big sister in the Middle East context. Erdogan’s newly adopted foreign policy in the Middle East, which is based on turning rivals into friends rather than turning friends into foes, is very promising. In the short term, this new policy is expected to play an effective role in enhancing Erdogan’s image in the upcoming election race, in 2023, as a result of the economic boost and the domestic and regional political stability it is expected to yield. However, for this policy to bear fruit in the long term, there are lots of political compromises that both Turkey and its new allies, in the regional coalition of odds, should make. One of these compromises requires President Erdogan to give up on his bias toward Arab political Islamists and go back to his old self that once captured the hearts and the minds of the Arab and Muslim people around the world. Whether this change is going to actually happen and how it will be received in the Arab world after nine years of media wars, are questions that only time and experience can answer.
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