- The fallout from the Khashoggi affair underlines a larger battle between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for influence throughout the Sunni world that will continue in the religious, political and economic spheres.
- Turkey may be trying to use its muted response to coax Saudi Arabia into stopping its cooperation with Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, or possibly into to reducing Saudi economic pressure on Qatar, Turkey’s major regional ally.
- Their slowly growing defense and economic ties will mitigate the chances of a complete rupture between Ankara and Riyadh.
For weeks, allegations of criminality and a cover-up have consumed the Turkish media after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Three weeks later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told parliament that Saudi authorities had planned the dissident’s slaying. Erdogan has a penchant for bombast, but the speech was understated, and the president even issued a cordial appeal to Saudi King Salman to cooperate in exposing the truth in the Khashoggi affair. Conspicuously, Erdogan elected not to mention the elephant in the room: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely believed to have played a role in the killing.
Among the major states of the Middle East, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are rivals competing for dominance in the Sunni Muslim world. The fallout over the violent death of a Saudi journalist in Turkey has given Ankara some leverage against Riyadh, which it will use carefully.
The speech and the steady leak of information from Turkish authorities strengthen the view that Erdogan is trying to carefully pressure Saudi Arabia, whose worldview and regional policies are at odds with Turkey’s. Erdogan isn’t going so far as to risk destroying relations with Saudi Arabia — especially given the prospect that the crown prince could emerge from the scandal — but if international pressure against the crown prince rises, Erdogan is well-positioned to join in the campaign. For the moment, Turkey is seeking to alter the balances within the Saudi royal family by emphasizing that the king is a credible partner while explicitly questioning who instigated the killing, all without mentioning the crown prince by name.
The antagonism between the crown prince and the president is mutual. In comments earlier this year to the Egyptian press, the crown prince called Turkey, Iran and political Islam an “axis of evil.” Basically, the two leaders are revisiting a familiar history of Saudi-Turkish rivalry, which goes back decades. Economic priorities might prevent each side from damaging an otherwise productive relationship, but that doesn’t mean each won’t try to capitalize on the other’s moments of weakness and public relations stumbles — particularly in the way Turkey appears to building leverage against Saudi Arabia in the Khashoggi killing.
Who Leads the Sunni World?
At its core, the conflict is driven by their differing political visions for the Sunni world, as well as the struggle between the visions to get the upper hand. For Saudi Arabia, which is the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Turkey’s challenge is seen as an attack on the legitimacy of the Saud family as rulers. For Turkey, whose sultans once held the same cities as the caliphs of the Sunni world, it is an opportunity to secure soft power in the Muslim world for decades to come.
At its core, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Turkey is driven by their differing political visions for the Sunni world.
The question of leadership in the Sunni world has been in flux since the nascent Turkish Republic abolished the caliphate in 1924. In the republican Turkish view, it is authentic expressions of Islamic thought, as espoused by morally upright Muslim citizens, that ought to guide and rule the Sunni world. The Saudis, in contrast, believe that traditional and clear hierarchies, with authority vested in Riyadh-appointed members of the ulama (Muslim clerics), should guide the Sunni world. In essence, Turkey posits that the legitimacy for leadership comes from the grassroots authenticity of everyday Muslims, while Saudi Arabia claims that it is based on the hierarchy of tradition.
This worldview explains Riyadh’s abhorrence of movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, which holds views similar to Turkey and which has received political protection from Ankara. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has operated out of Turkey since Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power from Mohammed Morsi, a member of the group, in 2013. Turkey’s worldview appeals to Muslims anywhere who believe that it is not tradition or social deference that must determine leadership, but commitment to the Islamic faith.
This is a direct political threat to the Saudi royal family’s legitimacy; the more Saudis are exposed to such thinking, the more they may question the tribal-cum-wasta (“influence”) social contract that underpins much of the monarchy’s authority. While the Saudis also claim to be pursuing true and authentic representations of Islam, their insistence on royal privilege and prerogative opens them to criticism that their religious scruples are not as consistent as they say. This creates a soft power contest between the two, and Riyadh hopes to keep this Turkish-derived influence as far away from Saudi subjects as possible.
Because Turkey and Saudi Arabia view themselves as the Muslim world’s pre-eminent Sunni powers, they are broadly aligned on many foreign policy issues. For instance, both countries want to contain the spread of Iranian hegemony in the region, perceiving Persian power as a threat to their own ability to lead the Middle East and the Muslim world. This makes the two powers natural allies to the United States’ growing efforts to contain Iran’s influence. Washington’s increasing reliance on the two to help contain Iran rests on existing U.S. dependence on the pair to bolster regional counterterrorism efforts. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have, after all, committed to fighting the Islamic State alongside the United States.
But despite their broad alignment on Iran, Ankara and Riyadh have very different relationships with Tehran. While Saudi Arabia avoids as much contact with Iran as possible, Turkey shares a border and an economic and strategic relationship with the country. This might expose Turkey to certain risks (for instance, the risk of suffering harsher U.S. sanctions on Iran in the coming months and years if Turkish companies continue to trade with Iranian entities), but it also provides Ankara a certain freedom to maneuver that Riyadh does not enjoy, such as in the Syria conflict. Moreover, Turkey and Iran’s shared border and large Kurdish populations also give the pair common cause to contain Kurdish separatism.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia further have an interest in supporting the same political causes across the Sunni world, albeit from different angles. The two countries support Palestinian statehood but have pursued contrasting approaches to economic and political aid for the community. Turkey is closer to Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot that rules Gaza, while Saudi Arabia primarily backs Fatah, the Palestinian faction that controls the West Bank and which is hostile toward Hamas. Turkey is also publicly healing its rift with Israel, which will broaden its ability to extend support to the Palestinians, at a time when Saudi Arabia has kept its ties with Israel as quiet as possible while expressing public support for the Palestinian cause.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have also staunchly opposed Syrian President Bashar al Assad throughout most of the Syrian civil war, but they have supported different rebel groups in the conflict. In this, Saudi Arabia’s recent support for the Syrian Kurds has particularly irked Turkey, which view such rebel groups as terrorists.
Competition and Conflict
The Iranian-Saudi rivalry has attracted much attention, but the Turkish-Saudi rivalry — nuanced though it is — is also producing real policy effects, drawing regional Sunni countries into either the Ankara or Riyadh camp. Because Turkey’s political model threatens governments such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the two states have aligned themselves with Saudi Arabia’s regional endeavors. But other Sunni governments, such as Qatar, have grown closer to Turkey because Doha supports Islamist politics as a means of forming deeper connections to global Muslim communities. A few, such as Jordan and Lebanon, try to benefit from both.
Further afield in Africa, the two powers have sought to build the political, religious, economic and security influence that could bolster political legitimacy on the continent. In the Horn of Africa and across North Africa, both countries are opportunistic, taking advantage of political openings, as in Somalia, where Turkey supports political forces opposed to rivals backed by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. In Tunisia, Turkey has tried to support the Islamist Ennahda party to help it counter more secularist parties, prompting Saudi Arabia’s (somewhat unsuccessful) efforts to back the latter. Saudi Arabia has also sought to weaken Turkey’s ability to make Africa an export market by undercutting Turkish efforts with donations or investments. By strengthening African economies, Saudi Arabia can help give them the strength to push for a harder bargain with Turkey or to seek imports from elsewhere.
As rivals, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have found ways to needle each other at points of weakness. Because preventing the development of an autonomous Kurdish polity is Turkey’s primary security objective, Ankara is increasingly nervous about Saudi and Gulf efforts to connect with Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia also deeply opposes Turkey’s support for Qatar, which helped provide a political and security lifeline at the beginning of the June 2017 blockade. Riyadh especially wants to prevent Ankara from bolstering its military presence in Qatar. What’s more, the two have also supported different communities within the crowded and complex political spectrum in Lebanon, in some ways inflaming Beirut’s political problems.
Neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia has a significant interest in stirring political waters that could upend valuable economic ties.
Despite the rivalry, Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s burgeoning economic ties might mitigate the possibility of a serious rift — particularly in the realm of defense. Turkish-Saudi defense collaboration began in September 2013, when the two countries ratified a cooperation agreement. Late in 2017, Aselsan Corp., one of Turkey’s most important defense companies, formed a joint venture with Saudi Arabia’s Taqnia called Saudi Defense Electronics Co. (SADEC), which focuses primarily on electronics, including jammers, radars, electronic warfare suites and infrared receivers. As part of the joint venture, Aselsan and Taqnia have commenced construction on a factory in Saudi Arabia.
Turkey has not yet made any major arms sales to Saudi Arabia, although Ankara has been negotiating the sale of unmanned aerial vehicles to Saudi Arabia and has entertained hopes of selling its Altay tank, as well as other weapons and equipment. Because bilateral defense ties remain in their infancy, a serious rift between Turkey and Saudi Arabia would not upend any current arms deals, but it would certainly hinder Ankara’s ambitions of expanding into the lucrative Saudi market, meaning neither side would benefit from a profound rupture in relations.
In terms of trade, the relationship is not massive (the two conducted just $4.7 billion in largely balanced trade last year), yet both governments have pledged to increase trade and investment in sectors that matter to both. Accordingly, neither country has a significant interest in stirring political waters that could upend valuable economic ties. Turkish construction firms, which represent a strategic sector for Ankara, have won contracts to build Saudi Arabian housing projects — the number of which is set to grow substantially under Riyadh’s Vision 2030. Saudi tourists, whose numbers have also been increasing yearly, have also buoyed the Turkish economy by spending big when visiting Turkey. Saudi citizens have also been at the forefront of a campaign to gobble up Turkish real estate, highlighting just how important the kingdom’s customers are to the economic sector for Ankara. (Naturally, some of Riyadh’s influence over Ankara through the real estate market is mitigated by the $1 billion in investments that Qatar, an even bigger foe of Saudi Arabia, has made in Turkey’s housing market in the past three years.)
Keeping Calm, for Now
For now, Riyadh is playing it safe with Ankara as it tries to defuse the Khashoggi crisis. So what, ultimately, does Turkey want as it dangles the journalist’s case over Saudi Arabia? Economically, Turkey could be quietly soliciting Saudi financial support in exchange for an end to the media pressure on the crown prince or it might even be soliciting some diplomatic relief for Doha, which remains under the Gulf Cooperation Council’s blockade. Politically and security-wise, Turkey is also seeking a channel to contain Saudi support for the Kurds.
Ultimately, however, much of the Saudi-Turkish rivalry fits into the political and soft power spheres, in which personalities like Mohammed bin Salman and Erdogan compete for prestige and Ankara and Riyadh attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Sunni world. For now, Turkey appears to see the benefit in not rocking the boat with Saudi Arabia— but that’s no guarantee that it won’t change its mind.