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Is there really a Saudi – Turkish divide? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Dr. Meliha Altunisik, Professor at the Middle East Technical University [METU] in Ankara, published an article on a US Foreign Affairs website dealing with Saudi – Turkish relations. In her article, the writer came to the conclusion that despite the rapprochement that has taken place between the two countries over the past few years, this has been hindered by a number of formidable obstacles and differences in opinion, particularly with regard to the Syrian issue. In her article “Bitter Frenemies: The Not-Quite-Alliance Between Saudi Arabia and Turkey”, Dr. Altunisik gives an account of the historical background over the course of Saudi – Turkish rapprochement, looking at the two countries’ stances on the Arab Spring. The writer portrays Turkey as a country that championed and encouraged the changes prevailing in the region, whereas Saudi Arabia is portrayed as a country that rejects this, adopting an antagonistic approach towards such changes.

It was also noticeable that the writer put forward the hypothesis that Saudi-Turkish relations in the past were full of suspicion and mutual distrust, coming to the conclusion that ideological, cultural and interest-related differences have all functioned as obstacles to any true rapprochement between the two countries. This claim, in itself, lacks any corroborating evidence and does not match history. The writer is right to say that the rapprochement is still far below the aspired for and anticipated levels, particularly considering the interests that can be served by this. However the foundation that Dr. Meliha Altunisik uses to prop up her hypothesis is inaccurate.

Let us look at some historical events. Saudi Arabia was among the first countries to open its doors and markets to Turkish investments at a time when the nationalist Nasserite expansion – and later on the Baathist expansion – was holding Turkey accountable for the abuses that the Arabs suffered prior to independence. Saudi Arabia and Turkey signed a memorandum of cooperation in 1962, and later on signed an economic agreement in 1974, whilst Turkey did not have any relations with countries like Syria, Iraq or even Egypt during this period. Indeed, these countries have always criticized Turkey’s position, particularly its relations with Israel or its links with NATO. Saudi Arabia has also given Turkish companies, especially those in the construction sector, a large share of the projects established in the country since the early 1970s following the boom in global oil prices, whilst Turkish products are widely available in Saudi markets.

As for the regional level, Saudi Arabia was among the few countries to have backed the Turkish stance during the Cyprus crisis. During the visit paid by late Turkish President Cevdet Sunay to Saudi Arabia in 1968, the Turks attempted to convince their Saudi counterparts of the necessity of backing the Turkish stance – at a time when some ‘revolutionary’ Arab states were backing the [Greek] Cypriots – and Saudi Arabia indeed agreed to back Turkey. Following its occupation of Cyprus after the 1974 coup, Ankara found itself subject to huge Western pressure, and by the end of 1979, Turkey was hit by its gravest economic crisis since 1930 when it was unable to settle its foreign debts. For this reason – according to William Quandt [1981] – Ankara had no other choice but to borrow from Saudi Arabia. There are two reasons for this: firstly Saudi aid was unconditional and was unrelated to any political agenda except the Palestinian Cause. Secondly, Turkey was therefore capable of freely handing this aid without any foreign economic conditions being imposed on it, such as projects serving the interests of Saudi companies.

Even in the 1980s and 1990s, Saudi – Turkish relations were strong, and so Turkey played a key mediating role during the Iraqi-Iranian war, whilst Turkey sided with the international forces during the war to liberate Kuwait. However, Turkey entered a state of internal isolation during the mid-1990s as a result of the struggle between the Kemalists and the Islamists. Turkey only began to pursue a regional role after the Justice and Development Party [AKP] was re-elected for a second term. Even then, this regional involvement did not go beyond some strongly-worded statements issued by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and diplomatic initiatives that involved Syria and Iran, in addition to the Gulf States.

This historic overview is important, for it shows that there is no major dispute or disagreement between the two sides. Saudi Arabia is not, for example Syria, sharing historic border disagreements with Turkey, not to mention Kurdish secessionist activity being supported by Damascus. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is not Iran, which has long backed radical left-wing militias that oppose Ankara. As for the issue that there has never been any official alliance between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, this could be viewed as a positive, as relations that are based on mutual respect and interests do not necessarily lead to the establishment of official alliances. In addition to this, some analysts’ inclination towards amplifying the true nature of relations between countries, providing fanciful explanations that lack convincing evidence, will ultimately only lead to conclusions that are based on supposition and wishful thinking.

For over 10 years, new articles and books were published every day about the rise of “Neo-Ottomanism”, whilst others have argued that the Turks are seeking to take exclusive possession of the Sunni card in order to confront Iran and its allies. On the other extreme, we have heard voices being raised warning against Syrian – Turkish and Iranian – Turkish rapprochement, whilst others believe that Saudi Arabia is concerned about the rise of Turkish influence in the region.

The fact of the matter is that none of this analysis relies on evidence or real dialogue with decision-makers, and so these claims are inadequate and unconvincing. There can be no doubt that researchers are having difficulty acquiring information, and so it may be years before an analyst can be completely certain of their facts. However resorting to fanciful explanation and supposition will not help anybody to reach a genuine understanding of the situation. If one were to review the dozens of articles published in illustrious magazines such as “Foreign Affairs”, “Foreign Policy” or even the “Economist”, one would see that many writers have given free rein to their imagination in their articles on the “Arab Spring” changes and its future impact on regional balances. This is a situation that reminds us of the Cold War when hundreds of books and thousands of articles were published about an upcoming “Armageddon” between the US and the Soviet Union, or about the “danger of the rise of Japan”, or even articles discussing “star wars” between the superpowers. Ultimately, part of this discourse is delusional and based purely on supposition.

During the current period, the same practices are reoccurring, with writers and analysts basing their views on baseless information, playing up analysis of a political meeting here or a gesture made by an official there. However, individual occurrences contribute to consolidating established views, rather than challenging them. This applies to the state of instability which the region continues to experience today, for we have not seen any change in the [foreign] policies of “Arab Spring” states. Tunisia seems to be completely absorbed in its internal affairs, Libya will perhaps be absent from the scene for years to come, as will Yemen. As for Egypt, it continues to experience a difficult labour, yet preliminary results do not indicate that we will witness a change in the relations between Egypt and its neighbouring countries, even after the “Muslim Brotherhood” rose to power. Of course, circumstances may change, but the current signs indicate that everything will remain the same. The Gizawi incident, for example, proved that it is very unlikely that relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt can be disrupted, even at the time of “revolution”. In addition to this, the al-Azhar institute – not to mention Muslim Brotherhood – position which rejects the establishment of “Hussainiat” [Shiite gatherings] in Egypt has proven that the supposition of an Egyptian-Iranian alliance is something that is impossible to countenance today.

What about the Syrian crisis? Anybody observing the Saudi-Turkish talks must realize that they are in perfect harmony regarding the necessity of ousting Bashar al-Assad. One side may be issuing stronger statements than the other, but practically speaking, there is no difference between their view and handling of the crisis. As for the claims that Saudi Arabia and Turkey are making different demands of Syria, this discourse is lacking in evidence. Of course, there are differences, but we have not seen Saudi Arabia or Turkey backing one opposition party over another. Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood constitutes an overwhelming majority of the Syrian opposition abroad, however this is in accordance with the fact that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is the largest established political party for Syrians abroad, therefore it is not wise to disregard it when considering the forthcoming period.

Developing Saudi – Turkish relations is important, because there is more that unites these two countries than divides them. However, like bilateral relations between any countries, the language of interests is the natural gauge regarding rapprochement. Of course, there are natural differences between the two countries, but to describe them as “frenemies” is an over-exaggeration.