Regional power politics in the Middle East have, since the Arab Uprisings of 2011-13, played out on two overlapping axes. The older one is a geopolitical and ideological competition between the “Resistance Front” led by the Islamic Republic of Iran and conservative Arab states led by Saudi Arabia.
The newer struggle has been an intra-Sunni competition between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt on the one hand and Turkey and Qatar on the other. These states had cordial relations with the United States and with each other, and were part of the US regional strategic architecture, first anti-Soviet and then anti-Iraqi and anti-Iranian. Ties between them deteriorated following Turkish (and Qatari) support of the popular uprisings in the Arab world, and especially of the Muslim Brotherhood, starting in 2011. Turkey was and is viewed by its rivals as pursuing regional disequilibrium and promoting expansionist geopolitical, hyper-nationalist, and religious goals.
Diplomatic moves in the past few months on the parts of Turkey and Saudi Arabia indicate an attempt to de-escalate and manage tensions, as well as to correct errors of strategic overreach.
Turkey: Learning to Play Nicely with Others
Turkey attempted to build itself after 2010 as the most influential Muslim power and as a competing model to that of the conservative Sunni monarchies and secular autocracies. It also began to pursue nationalistic goals in its near abroad, such as the “Blue Homeland,” the concept of restoring Ottoman-era maritime claims and control in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas. This, as well as its flirtation with Russia, brought it into conflict with the United States and other NATO Allies, especially Greece and France.
In addition, its attempt to position itself as a hegemon and spoiler in Eastern Mediterranean affairs has left Turkey outside a newly forming Eastern Mediterranean sub-regional cooperative system. This encompasses Egypt (the lynchpin of the system), Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and France. These countries, along with Jordan, Italy, and the Palestinian Authority, comprise the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum; the UAE and the U.S. also take part. The Forum has disrupted Turkish hopes to be the main transit route of the sub-region’s gas. Turkey has also become the object of a security alignment between most of these countries. Tensions were aggravated by its use of naval forces to threaten Cypriot gas exploration and stress border disputes with Greece, as well as its security alliance with the former Government of National Accord in Tripoli.
Ankara now seems to be reassessing its diplomatic strategy and seeking a way out of its current diplomatic isolation. It is also facing a severe economic crisis and needs to preserve and expand regional trade and energy opportunities. In addition, its relations with Iran, with which it has been strategically aligned in facing the conservative Arab alliance over the past decade, have lately been more turbulent, especially regarding war in Nagorno-Karabakh, where they supported opposite sides, and the continued Iranian support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.Top of Form
Turkey has recently made a significant change in the tone of its policy towards its Sunni rivals. In March 2021, it signaled willingness to “open a new chapter” with Egypt. Turkey-based Egyptian opposition media outlets were ordered to suspend attacks on the Egyptian government and President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. The most significant development so far was an early May meeting of the two states’ deputy foreign ministers in Cairo, the first official talks between the two states since 2013; contacts previously had been handled by the countries’ intelligence services.
Ankara may be trying to divide its Eastern Mediterranean adversaries and pry Cairo away from Greece and Cyprus. It has proposed a maritime boundary agreement with Egypt, probably to counter a similar agreement that Egypt signed last year with Greece; that agreement, in turn, was in reaction to Turkey’s own maritime border agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord in November 2019, which ignored parts of Greece’s exclusive economic zone. The recent Turkish offer was met with disinterest on the Egyptian side. Turkey, in dire economic straits, also wishes to ensure continued trade with Egypt, which has continued to be extensive and hit record highs in 2018-19 despite political tensions.
One key irritant in the bilateral relationship, Libya, seems to be declining in importance. Both Ankara and Cairo have expressed support for the newly instated transitional Government of National Unity. The new reality in Libya may lead to significant opportunities for Turkish and Egyptian companies in reconstruction and infrastructure projects. However, Egypt has demanded that Turkey withdraw its forces and Syrian mercenaries from Libya as a precondition for improving relations. The other main issue for Egypt is Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and specifically the presence in Turkey of thousands of Egyptian members who took refuge there after the 2013 coup. Egypt is not expected to compromise on either issue, as it sees the Turks as having the greater interest in rapprochement.
On another front, on April 28, Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s spokesman said, “We will seek ways to repair the relationship with a more positive agenda with Saudi Arabia.” He also noted that Turkey respected how the Saudi judiciary had handled the Khashoggi affair, with eight individuals sentenced to prison. The Turkish foreign minister visited Riyadh on May 10 and met with his Saudi counterpart, two days after a phone call between Erdogan and King Salman bin Abdulaziz.
Regarding Saudi Arabia, apart from the wider Turkish policy of reducing conflict, there is a significant economic driver. Exports of Turkish goods to Saudi Arabia, worth over three billion dollars in 2020, dropped significantly in the past year, reaching a year-on-year decline of over 90% in the first months of 2021. The decline came from an officially encouraged commuter boycott, based on the Turkish exposures and reactions regarding the Khashoggi case.
It is also worth noting that Turkey has over the past year displayed ostensible readiness to ease tensions with Israel, a formerly close military and intelligence partner with which relations have been bad since 2007. In December 2020, following reported cooperation with Israel regarding assistance to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Erdogan announced that he wished to see relations improve. Little real progress has occurred, and Israel has been extremely skeptical of the Turkish approaches. However, the Israeli Energy Minister was invited to participate in a diplomatic forum in Turkey in June; the invitation was cancelled on May 11 in the wake of the recent wave of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Turkish signaling towards Israel will probably be suspended—if not scuttled totally—by recent developments, regarding which Erdogan has taken a very strong anti-Israeli (calling Israel a “cruel terrorist state”) and pro-Hamas stance.
Saudi Arabia: Taking a More Emollient Stance
A decade ago, the UAE and Saudi Arabia took the lead of the conservative, counterrevolutionary camp after Egypt and Iraq were focused on internal turmoil. As his power and influence grew in Saudi Arabia since 2015, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman began to pursue an activist foreign and national security policy, most significantly in Yemen, with a Saudi-Emirati intervention against the Houthis, but also in Lebanon and regarding relations with Israel.
Implacable hostility towards Turkey and Iran has been the central driver of Saudi foreign policy since Mohammad bin Salman’s rise to prominence. However, Saudi Arabia, like Turkey, is re-examining its adventurist policy.
There has always been an element of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi concerns about Iran were accelerated by the exposure of the Iranian nuclear program in 2002 and by America’s toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, which eliminated a buffer between Iran and the Gulf states. Saudi antipathy towards Iran received an additional boost in 2011 when it seemed the Iranians and their Shi’i allies might be poised to exploit new currents unleashed by the Arab Uprisings.
But Saudi Arabia can moderate its attitude towards Tehran if national interest so dictates. Saudi détente with Iran has been apparent since 2019, when Riyadh grew concerned about the lack of concrete U.S. response to the downing of a U.S. drone by Iran in the Persian Gulf in June and attacks on Aramco facilities in September. In November of that year, indirect negotiations were reported to be occurring through the mediation of Pakistan and Iraq. More recently, Mohammad bin Salman said in a wide-ranging April 2021 interview that Saudi Arabia desires regional stability and is not opposed to talks with Iran, provided Tehran stops sponsoring regional militias. Iraqi President Barham Salih confirmed that Baghdad has hosted more than one round of talks between the two.
As the Biden administration assumed office and it became clear that Washington intended to rapidly restart nuclear deal negotiations, Saudi Arabia began to pursue a policy that would satisfy the new administration. The Biden administration seemed to be ready to pursue a much more critical policy towards Saudi Arabia. As analyst Hussein Ibish notes, independent Saudi outreach to Iran serves to support Washington and as a hedge against the United States potentially ignoring Saudi concerns in talks with Tehran. The U.S. administration has reportedly encouraged the kingdom’s outreach to Iran, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken terming the possibility of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran a positive development.
One of the key issues for Saudi in its engagement with Iran—apart from the American consideration—is Riyadh’s interest in disengaging from the civil war in Yemen, without being seen as having been beaten. As the main external support of the Houthis, Tehran is the key to some sort of conflict settlement. Saudi Arabia is also interested in ensuring maritime security in the Gulf; the two countries may also discuss modalities of Iran’s possible return to the oil export market. Iran appears willing to engage with Saudi Arabia. On May 12, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “We are ready and always have been ready to have closer relations with Saudi Arabia.”
Regarding intra-Sunni tensions, the recent round of diplomacy kicked off with the al-Ula Summit in Saudi Arabia in January 2021, which ended the land, sea, and air embargo imposed on Qatar in June 2017 by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. The driving factor behind ending the embargo seems to have been Saudi understanding that it had failed to achieve its purpose and the desire to remove an irritant vis-à-vis the new U.S. administration. However, regarding Turkey, Saudi Arabia is more reserved: It is the pursued, rather than the pursuer. Détente with Iran is a much higher priority for Riyadh. The Saudis—like the Egyptians—may see Turkey as being more motivated to improve relations than they are, and therefore feel less obliged to make concessions or high-level statements to improve the atmosphere. Some reports indicate that Riyadh has “delegated the Turkish file” to Cairo, with whom it is working closely and will not progress on bilateral relations unless Egypt does so.
Insights and Conclusions
All the Sunni powers today view the Biden administration with considerable trepidation. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were key partners in the Trump administration’s Middle East policy. While Turkey faced increasing tension with the United States over its close relationship with Russia, the relationship between Erdogan and Trump was reportedly positive. Egypt’s al-Sisi was Trump’s “favorite dictator.” They all feel changes in the breezes coming from Washington, regarding their internal, especially human rights, and security policies. More broadly, they fear the American intention—made clear already in previous administrations—to reduce its regional footprint and “pivot” to face more significant perceived challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia (with the UAE) have been adventurist—perhaps even revisionist—powers for the past eight years. They have been projecting state power to increase their influence, change (or restore) the regional balance of power, and place themselves at the apex of the Sunni power structure in the Arab world and beyond; this is in contrast to Iran, which is trying to “lock in” its substantial gains of the past two decades. They have, however, failed in their more reckless efforts, and are badly overextended. In addition, with the United States less willing to expend resources, these countries need to create stronger regional-based alignments and reduce the number of fronts and enemies they are engaged with.
While there are significant motivations and interests for Turkey and Saudi Arabia to moderate their regional policies and attempt to ease their bilateral tensions with key players, this does not mean that a real change in fundamental regional dynamics is in view. There is little liking or real trust, and much personal and elite enmity, in all of the relevant dyads: Turkey-Egypt, Turkey-Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia-Iran. Egypt and Saudi Arabia largely hold the cards vis-à-vis Turkey. They will not compromise much on removing Turkish security assets from Libya and especially on essentially eliminating the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood presence and influence in Turkey, a step which may be too sensitive politically and ideologically for Erdogan. It is doubtful whether Cairo has an interest in significantly changing its Eastern Mediterranean energy strategy to benefit Ankara.
Previously published by Foreign Policy Research Institute.