Intense geo-political upheavals are taking place in the Middle East in the wake of the Trump administration’s exit from power. The Biden administration, therefore, will inherit a Middle East that is much more complex and changed than it was during the Obama administration. However, a lot of what is happening today in the Middle East—The Abraham Accords, an apparent ‘rift’ between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and crucial rapprochement between Saudia and Turkey and Saudia and Qatar—owes itself not just to the change of administration in the US from the Republicans to the Democrats, but also equally, or even more, to the complex dynamics of the Middle East as well. On the one hand, we have evidence of growing competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE itself, and on the other, we have the UAE spearheading normalization with Israel in exchange for some major benefits that will help it cement its claims to the leadership of the Gulf. While the Saudis remain convinced that normalization with Israel is crucial, the ‘UAE phenomenon’ with all its ambitions has become a nuisance that the Kingdom is struggling to deal with. This is equally true of the Turks who, too, are engaged in intense competition with the UAE.
Saudi troubles have been compounded by the arrival of the Biden administration and its promise of changing policies towards the Kingdom. The Saudis have accordingly taken a step back from normalization with Israel without abandoning the process, and started paying more attention to the more immediate challenge that they’re facing from within the Gulf and the change of administration in the US. It is accordingly not a coincidence that a Saudia-Turkey rapprochement has started to happen at a time both Saudia and Turkey are feeling the heat. The in-coming Biden administration has already indicated its policy of ‘no-appeasement’ towards the Saudis; the out-going Trump administration has slapped the Turks with fresh sanctions, setting in motion developments that would create such a wedge between Turkey and the US the new US administration will not be too willing to bridge quickly.
The Saudis, therefore, have reasons to mend their relations with Ankara and its ally, Qatar as well. Thanks to Kuwaiti mediation, the Saudis and Qatar are closing in on a deal that would end Saudi boycott of Qatar. The UAE, as could be expected, remains opposed to the normalization in the Gulf and remains pre-deposed to normalization with Israel (because this normalization serves its interests). Whereas a normalization within the Gulf, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Turkey will allow the Kingdom reclaim its ‘lost prestige’, it will have a negative impact on the Emirati ambitions to claim leadership by side-stepping the Saudis.
Within this matrix, therefore, the Saudis are approaching Turkish and Qatari leaders to defeat Emirati plans. There is no gainsaying that the UAE and Israel are not going to appreciate Saudi Arabia’s normalisation with Qatar and Turkey. Both have great animus against the Turkey-Qatar axis which they see as an existential challenge to their regional strategies to dominate Middle Eastern politics. They see Ankara and Doha as mentoring the Muslim Brotherhood. (Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood). While the Saudis, too, are against the Brotherhood, for the moment their concerns vis-à-vis the UAE seem to outweigh their concerns vis-à-vis the Brotherhood.
As such, while a Saudi rapprochement with Turkey and Qatar would help end the isolation it is facing in the wake of UAE-led normalization with Israel, both Turkey and Saudis also hope to increase their own space to counter-manoeuvre and stay active in the on-going race to leadership in the next years.
In other words, while a Saudi deal with Israel would have been a perfect ‘departing gift’ of the Trump administration, the Saudis know that the deal wouldn’t serve them well vis-à-vis the assertive Biden administration. On the other hand, the Saudis seem to calculate, normalization in the Gulf with Qatar could help the Saudis paint a positive image of the Kingdom in Washington and the EU.
It is, in this context, remarkable to see how quickly the Saudis were able to overcome tensons with Turkey over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It appears that the Saudis have for now buried the fact that Ankara back then did its best to name Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) in that brutal murder to undermine the next King of the Kingdom.
While the Trump administration willfully protected MBS, the Biden administration could certainly reverse the course. In this context, therefore, it was but natural for the Saudis to start a normalization process with Turkey, the main proponent of ‘justice for Khashoggi.’ This will help the Saudis neutralize any US moves to frame MBS.
As is evident, Saudia’s major moves on the foreign policy front are deeply rooted in a complex set of changes taking place and expected to take place within the Middle East and Washington.
This rapprochement certainly has many challenges to counter. Apart from the fact that both Saudia and Turkey share a history of rivalry and practice and champion two different brands of Islam that make them ideologically incompatible, the UAE-Israel nexus will definitely make its moves to sabotage Saudi reconciliation with Turkey and Qatar.
Were Saudia and Turkey and Qatar to get along well, this could allow for a powerful block to emerge that could effectively rival the UAE-Israeli ambitions.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.