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19.04.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

On the Revamped Saudia-Turk Strategic Alliance

34544The apparent pomp and show of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman’s visit to Turkey carries a lot of strategic baggage as both countries prepare to open an entirely new chapter in the history of their bi-lateral relations, which have, historically speaking, largely remained confined to trade and energy. Never has so much importance been given to strategic partnership as it is being given today. Saudi Arabia, which won its ‘freedom’ from Turks in the wake of the first world war, has been competing Turkey’s drive towards establishing the so-called moderate version of Islam, as expressed through the Muslim Brotherhood, in the Middle East—a version that directly challenges the Saudi version as also the Saudi concept of statehood and monarchy. However, these differences seem to have mitigated with the passage of time. Thanks to the conflict in Syria that both countries have played a decisive role in.

As it stands, the importance Turkey seems to have attached to this visit is as much a reflection of political expediency as a strategically paranoid state it has recently found itself in. Saudia’s King Salman and Turkey’s Erdogan have much in common as both of them want to topple Assad and replace him by a ‘friendly regime’ to facilitate their grand energy projects. A part of grand pipeline politics as it all is, there is very little evidence to gainsay that the anchor point of their relations is Syria. Beyond Syria, both have little in common except their mutual power tussle.

Although the visit has happened this week, both have been strategically co-operating with regard to settling the Syrian crisis for past few months now. Saudi Arabia has stationed its jets in Turkey and has been launching strikes against ISIL in Iraq. While the so-called co-operation against IS continues, it also shows a glaring divergence between the two countries’ long term interests. Saudi jets have, so far, refrained from attacking IS in Syria, where Russia has military presence. It is clearly an attempt on the part of the Saudis to avoid any un-necessary entanglement with Russia, the kind of which Turkey had last year when it shot down a Russian jet. As reports indicate, Saudi jets are unable to fly over Syrian airspace because of the hostilities between Turkey and Russia and instead travel from Diyarbakir airbase in Eastern Turkey to strike at ISIL targets in Iraq.

This is probably due further to the House of Saud’s policy to maintain a delicate balance between Turkey and Russia. That is to say, although Saudi Arabia does aim at striking a desired solution to the Syrian conflict, it does not want to be drawn into Turkey’s confrontation with Russia. Similarly, Saudi Arabia would be least interested in making any long-term military commitment to Turkey’s own war on Kurds, notwithstanding that President Erdoğan regards Kurdish militants as terrorists, and fighting terrorists is the main aim of the alliance, he may argue Kurds should be among the alliance’s targets.

These differences go even deeper. This is especially the case with regard to their conflicting positions vis-à-vis Egypt. Despite the opulence of King’s visit to Turkey, the King preferred to visit Egypt before he landed in Ankara. While Mohammad Morsi is still in prison and officially still awaiting a death sentence, President Erdoğan will probably not be willing to normalize relations with Egypt fully. But there is something of a compromise in the air: Turkey agreed to allow the Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry to attend the OIC summit in Istanbul. It seems unlikely that Turkey would be willing to make operational concessions to Egypt over the Islamic Force against Terrorism, not least because the two countries were long-standing regional rivals long before 2011 and are likely to remain so.

While the King did show his priorities quite unambiguously, his visit to Egypt and consequent concession Ankara has given also marks an important diplomatic victory for Salman as he intends to utilize the up-coming OIC summit to rally the ‘Sunni world’ behind his leadership. Salman will also try to reconcile Erdoğan to Egypt’s new military-backed government, which overthrew the elected, Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013.

Erdoğan wants Morsi’s death sentence commuted. Bringing together these two major Sunni powers is key to Saudia’s success in building a nexus of Sunni states around its orbit. However, the important question is: to what extent would Turley be willing to sacrifice its own regional position by giving in to Saudia’s regional ambitions and the strategic aims to achieve through its wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq?

While King Salman does want to take Turkey and Egypt to a point of normalizations, this seems to be a rather difficult task given that Istanbul hosts the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian parliament in exile, the disbanding of which is more or less essential for any improvement between Cairo and Ankara. Erdogan seems adamant that he will not take any steps backward to satisfy Sisi.

While Erdogan, so far, seems to maintain an unchanged position vis-à-vis Egyptian government, the position might undergo some change or Turkey may become willing enough to leave this matter for now once the so-called Saudi-led “Islamic Army” starts showing some credibility. If it does, it may well play a major part in the Middle Eastern politics — and perhaps shoulder some burdens which the US no longer wants to carry there—and further allow Turkey to use this army to settle the score with Kurds.

It would, therefore, not be wrong to state that the actual outcome of King Salman’s efforts at reconciling Turkey to Sisi’s government depends upon how far Saudia goes into helping Turkey fight off the Kurds to prevent its territorial disintegration—a situation that may soon become a serious crisis for Turkey given the magnitude of Kurds’ success against IS. Hence, Turkey’s attempts at drawing Saudia deep into its ethnic war against Kurds.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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