Post-Ottoman Turkey was built by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. After the devastation of World War One, Ataturk was convinced that the “sick man of Europe” could only survive by modernizing and becoming more secular. Traditional Turkish clothing was banned (as was the hijab for women) in favor of Western attire. Arabic script for the language was replaced with the Latin script. Women were granted full and equal rights as well. And in 1948, Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, and formed strong ties with it that lasted for decades.
Saudi Arabia was a staunch opponent of the Jewish state, and to this day has no relations with Israel. The Arab Peace Initiative it put forward in 2002 offers Israel full ties and recognition, but requires that Israel endanger itself with a return of Arab refugees (and their descendants) from 1948 and by completely withdrawing from the entirety of the West Bank and Golan Heights, as well as from eastern Jerusalem. Understandably, Israel rejected the offer. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist clerics have often funded terrorism and perpetuated a system of oppression for women, the LGBT community, and minority groups inside the desert kingdom.
However, in recent years, both countries, often seen as the most important and powerful in the Sunni Islamic World, have been switching roles. Saudi Arabia is modernizing and moderating and Turkey is radicalizing.
Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, has grown increasingly influential and powerful in the reclusive country. Born in a generation that has no living memory of the Arab-Israeli Wars of the 20th Century, he is more open to collaboration with the Jewish state in tackling Iranian expansionism in the Middle East and increasing trade. The Crown Prince is eager to put an end to the corruption emanating from the elite in Riyadh that has angered millions of Saudi citizens, while also crushing the radical Sunni extremism that his country once financed. The radicalism, corruption, and abuse of human rights (which MBS is also slowly trying to improve upon) has destabilized the region, threatened the monarchy, and given his country a bad reputation. While Iran has a radical theocratic government, women in the country are in a much better position than in Saudi Arabia. They are educated, can drive, have more freedom to go on outings, and can have more respectable professions. As such, Iran is gaining acceptance and even admiration among some “moderate” or “liberal” circles in Western countries, despite its egregious human rights violations and support for terrorism overall. Moreover, Iran is able to capitalize on the relative freedom of its women even more, as women in the workforce helps to expand its economy and global influence. Saudi Arabia, however, is behind in these regards. If it wants to catch up and remain ahead of Iran economically in the long-term and gain more legitimacy and acceptance among progressives around the world, it must modernize.
But as one pillar of Islamism falls, another rises. Turkey, like Qatar, is trending in another direction. Since the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara has drifted away from the Kemalist secularism that has defined the Turkish state since the early 20th Century and towards Sunni Islamism, which traditionally has been affiliated with Pakistan or Arab countries. Erdogan, arrested in the 1990s due to his Welfare Party being “threatening to Turkey’s secularism”, has become a tyrant who jails his political opponents and journalists at an alarming rate. He regularly makes racist rants against Jews, Armenians, and Kurds, and bizarrely claims that European criticism of his rule emanates from its “racist and fascist” past. Erdogan’s Turkey, which miraculously survived a coup attempt by the Kemalist-committed military just last year, has turned a blind eye to ISIS militants and had ties to oil trade from the so-called caliphate. Turkey’s support for terrorism is increasingly well-known in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and it has continued support for Qatar’s increasingly Islamist influence throughout the Middle East (mainly in pre-2013 Egypt and in Libya). Ankara’s newly acrimonious attitude towards Jerusalem, while better than in recent years, is also part of its radicalism, as seen with its support for Hamas, a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In 1923, Ataturk’s secular system in Turkey–known now as Kemalism–transformed the country into a modernized state that grew increasingly close to the West. Just nine years later, in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism helped create the kingdom we know today, and the peninsular country, formerly an Ottoman territory, wedded itself to archaic religious law. In modern times, both systems are being challenged and undermined by ambitious new rulers who, more than likely, will find themselves in deep competition for the title of ruler of the Sunni world. The West (particularly the United States) and Israel must quickly adapt to these changes accordingly. The NATO membership of Turkey–a country that jails more journalists than any other and spreads chaos throughout the Middle East–needs to be more seriously challenged, as does the possibility of it joining the European Union. Thomas Friedman wrote in a piece about MBS this past week that only a fool would predict the outcome of this Saudi shift, but only a fool wouldn’t root for it. Rather than immediately condemning any changes that MBS makes as “reckless”, Western leaders perhaps should offer advice or help to the young leader. Outside military intervention or foreign aid has not solved the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict or put an end to the scourge of Sunni Islamism. But a more responsible and moderate Saudi Arabia with younger and reformist leadership has a better chance of stabilizing the region and creating the necessary atmosphere for normalization with Israel. After years of trying to impose foreign solutions on the Middle East from outside societies, as well as maintain unsustainable and often bloody “status quo” systems in the region, the West should sit back and create a long-term plan for how to deal with and respond accordingly to the two newly emerging positions emanating from Ankara and Riyadh. We should still be cautious and urge for human rights to be fully respected in the region. However, it seems there is more of a chance now than there ever has been for the West to see a moderate and self-reliant Saudi Arabia emerge.