In an interview with Time magazine’s Fareed Zakaria, U.S. President Barack Obama named Recep Tayyip Erdogan as one of his five top international friends, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak, and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Neither Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was included.
Although Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey and King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia are both Sunni-Muslim states, their national interests and political aspirations are at odds with one another. Erdogan has become President Obama’s trusted ally in the Middle East, while the Saudis are mistrustful of Obama and seek to lessen their dependence on the U.S. To show its displeasure with the Obama administration, Saudi Arabia renounced the UN Security Council seat it worked hard to get. Erdogan supported President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the Saudis were the first to congratulate General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s military chief, for overthrowing the Morsi-Muslim Brotherhood regime. In Syria, Erdogan supports the Muslim Brotherhood elements within the Syrian Sunni opposition, while the Saudis back the likes of radical al-Qaida affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Perhaps most interesting is the position of the two Islamic states on Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza. Erdogan has recently divulged to Iran the identities of ten Iranian spies for Israel. He also pushed to exclude Israel from NATO military exercises, and has been a major supporter of the Islamist terrorist group Hamas. The Saudis, on the other hand, have had and continue to have contacts with Israel, albeit, under the radar. Israel and Saudi Arabia share core issues, which include the dangerous prospect of a nuclear Iran, concern over the recent advances made by the Muslim Brotherhood since the “Arab Spring” began, and exasperation with the Obama administration over the handling of the Syrian crisis, and particularly with its naïve assessment of Iran’s “charm offensive.”
Just prior to the Syrian civil war, Erdogan has maintained a close relationship with Syria’s President Bashar Assad and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was the so-called pragmatic policy of Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s in the post-Cold war that was called “Zero problems with neighbors.” Erdogan’s Turkey saw itself as the regional “Mr. Nice Guy.” Frustrated by the European Union delay of its membership, it sought to establish cultural affinity with fellow majority Muslim states such as Iran and Syria.
The Turkey-Iran-Syria bonding did not please Saudi Arabia, to say the least. Turkey’s association with Shiite Iran and its Alawi client in Syria irritated the Saudis who are fighting a proxy war with the Islamic Republic of Iran in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Arab Gulf states. After Erdogan’s Turkey refused to allow U.S. troops to pass through Turkish territory in 2003, on the way to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Erdogan demonstrated to Iran and Syria that Ankara was no longer in Washington’s thrall. The most significant common bond however, was the three countries’ policy to suppress Kurdish aspirations.
The real blow to “zero problems,” came when the “Arab Spring” began to turn into “Arab Winter.” For the West, Turkish pragmatism meant silent support for the Ahmadinejad regime in Iran that oppressed its people, and stole the 2009 elections. Erdogan also backed the authoritarian regime of Egypt’s Muhammad Morsi.
Erdogan has sought to revive the glory of the Ottoman Empire, and assume the mantle of “sultan,” if not the title itself. He sees himself as the leader of the Sunni-Muslim world. In Erdogan’s megalomania, he might even consider himself to be something resembling a “Caliph” (Caliph is a designation for the successors to the Prophet Muhammad, who held temporal and sometimes a degree of spiritual authority in the Empire). Sultan Selim I, who reigned 1512-1520, conquered Mecca and Medina, and declared himself Caliph. Soon after the Caliphate was abolished in March 1924, the Hashemite Amir of Hejaz, Sharif Hussein of Mecca (related by blood to the prophet Muhammad), declared himself Caliph. He also took the title of King of the Arabs. The Saud clan and its Ikhwan or brotherhood allies from central Arabia, which adopted the Wahhabi Muslim creed centuries earlier, attacked the Hejaz and captured Mecca and Medina in July 1924. The Saud family, and the Saudi monarchy have been the guardians of Islam’s holy cities ever since.
A lengthy historical impasse has transformed in recent years into a strategic and economic partnership (trade volume between the two countries reached 4.66 billion USD in 2010) between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Relations were strengthened as both countries sought to coordinate their support for the Syrian rebels and counterbalance Iran’s expansion in the region. Yet, in the wake of the Egyptian coup, this partnership appears to be strained as the two countries’ visions collided with the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
The Turkish pro-government press criticism of the Saudi position in Egypt, which has had overall consensus among all segments of the Turkish population, including secularists, was reflected in the negative press coverage of Saudi Arabia. Turkey is one country in the region where Islamists, secularists, leftists and liberals all concur on the negative image of Saudi Arabia, with each doubting its policies. While Saudi Arabia has succeeded in creating loyal constituencies in many countries, somehow it has failed to endear itself to the Turks.
On the Saudi side, while the Turkish-Saudi partnership is officially celebrated as a great strategic alliance, the Saudi press occasionally launches attacks that undermine this veneer of cooperation. Accusations that “Sultan Erdogan” longs for the return of the Ottoman caliphate regularly appeared in the Saudi sponsored pan-Arab press. Such attacks are often backed by appeals to Arabism and the historical animosity between Turkey and the Arab people.
The Saudi Wahhabi creed has been spread globally by the Al-Haramain Foundation. It is competing for souls with the Turkish Gulen Movement, which is a transnational religious Movement, led by the Turkish Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gulen. While the Gulen Movement is more discreet about pushing its Islamist agenda, Al-Haramain, according to the Security Council Committee, “was one of the principal NGOs active throughout the world providing support for the Al-Qaida network.”
Facing a more populous and militarily powerful Iran across the Gulf, the Saudis sought to check Iran’s encroachment through an alliance with the U.S. Past presidents of the U.S. were indeed reliable Saudi allies, but not the Obama administration. President Obama supported the Muslim Brotherhood uprisings throughout the Middle East, and Egypt’s deposed President Morsi in particular. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia shared concern at the prospect of a new alliance between the Arab Sunni-Islamist states and Erdogan’s Turkey.
As one of President Obama’s best friends in the world, it is likely that Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan will serve as a “go between” the U.S. and Iran. Besides his anti-Semitic outburst, and his deep hostility towards Israel, Erdogan’s view regarding Iran’s nuclear program is worrisome. In November, 2008, speaking at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., Erdogan suggested that Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons was “normal for any country.” That alone is sufficient enough for Saudi and Israeli policy-makers to worry. It is also one of the reasons for the widening gap between Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
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