April 17, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Riyadh and Ankara Vie for Regional Supremacy
The long rivalry between Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) as to which country is considered the leader of the Sunni Islamic world has entered a new chapter. Several factors have combined to make this new chapter potentially the most change-filled since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Among these factors are:
The Saudi Arabia—supported by the UAE—crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, to the point of designating it a terrorist organization and criminalizing even vocal support for the group.
The recent strong electoral showing of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has aligned itself strongly with the Muslim Brotherhood, giving Erdogan more electoral capital to export AKP-style electoral success to other Islamic countries.
The shrinking role that Egypt is playing in the region, with KSA providing financial support to the military that ousted former president and Muslim Brotherhood member Muhammad Morsi, and Turkey providing support for the Brotherhood.
The civil war in Syria, in which KSA and Turkey agree on the overall objective of toppling the Assad regime, but are backing rebel groups with very different philosophies about Syria’s future.
The future makeup of the Middle East is being shaped in many ways, some less obvious than others. The well-publicized Shi’a-Sunni divide between Iran and its neighbors influences a great deal of what happens in the region, but the less obvious Sunni-Sunni divide wields perhaps an equal amount of influence. Turkey represents one side of the moderate Hanafi-influenced brand of Islam, merged with an electoral democracy and secular legal system. Saudi Arabia, with its ultra Salafi-influenced brand of Islam merged with a dynastic monarchy, represents the other. Further adding to the divide is the weight of history, with the Ottoman Empire—the last Caliphate—rubbing up against the Saudi dynasty.
While the rivalry is dated it nevertheless drives perceptions and reactions to ongoing events. It is difficult to overstate the Saudi anxiety surrounding the consequences of the Arab Spring revolutions—particularly the quick rise and quicker fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Saudi Arabia’s designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization complicates its relationship with Turkey, with whom the Kingdom has been working to address mutual concerns in Syria. The Turkish government in general and Erdogan personally are pro-Muslim Brotherhood, and the group’s international headquarters are located in Istanbul. But, according to the Saudi decree, Turkey is providing material aid to a terrorist group.
However, the Saudi crackdown on the Brotherhood complicates the rivalry, and Erdogan is coming off of a strong showing by his party in recent municipal elections. His relatively solid domestic support might give him more confidence to further push his country’s brand of political Islam as a modern standard for others to emulate. However, the dismantling of the Brotherhood in Egypt was a blow to Turkish aspirations for Islamic democracy, and creates yet another zone in which Turkey and KSA vie for influence, with Ankara providing support for the Brotherhood and KSA providing even greater support to Egypt’s military government.
The Saudi brand of Sunni Islam is considerably more hardline and conservative than Turkey’s, but fears of instability (and generous financial incentives) have driven Egypt much closer to the Saudi orbit than to Turkey. In a way, the context of age-old differences in interpretations of Islam, which in the last few decades morphed into a contest over the meaning of political Islam, is being recast as a choice between stability and opportunity, as Saudi stresses the former and Turkey stresses the latter.
Even when it comes to their common regional foe Iran, the two agree on some principles but not the details. Saudi Arabia objects strongly to engagement with Iran, pushing to isolate the country in order to stifle its nuclear program along with it brand of revolutionary Shi’ism. Conversely, Turkey has extensive ties with Iran. It relies heavily on imported Iranian natural gas, and hopes to reach $30 billion in overall trade with Tehran by 2015. Turkey also keeps the rhetoric in check, while Riyadh’s talk of Iran is much more aggressive.
Lastly, the Syrian civil war has seen both countries take leading roles in the opposition efforts to topple the Assad regime, and is a source of cooperation between the two rivals. Yet even here, the two interpretations of Sunni Islam create divisions, as the possibility of Salafist-influenced opposition groups controlling Turkey’s southern flank is an increasing concern for Ankara. For its part, Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to see a Muslim Brotherhood-styled government gaining control, though there is little chance of that in the near-term given the fractious and increasingly extremist nature of the Syrian opposition.
It is unlikely either side will be able to claim victory in this long rivalry, but the moves made by Saudi Arabia and Turkey as they seek influence will greatly determine the course and nature of change in the region.
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