From television screens to social media feeds, the month of October was dominated by the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The journalist was an outspoken critic of the Saudi monarch, he disappeared after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The event drew tons of attention of the increasing authoritarian tendencies of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The fact that the murder of Khashoggi happened in Turkey only fuels the rivalry that has developed between the two Sunni power holders of the region. The once strong relationship has deteriorated in recent years, as both sides have found themselves on opposing ends in nearly every corner of the conflict-driven region we call the Middle East.
The self-immolation of a Tunisian street vender had sent shock waves across the Arab world. With four regimes toppled and the possibility for more to fall, the Saudi monarchy felt threatened. Turkey’s political Islamist government lead by then Prime Minister Erdogan were optimistic of Arab Spring in expanding their regional power with like minded Arab political Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Turks found themselves faced head to head in Egypt. The Saudis greatly supported General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s coup d’etat on Egypt’s first democratically elected Turkish backed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. In Syria, although both the Turks and Saudi’s have the common interest in the fall of the Iranian backed Assad regime, both have funded different rebel groups with opposing ideologies.
In June 2017, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had severed diplomatic and economic ties with the State of Qatar. Saudi Arabia had reached out to their allies to join them in the embargo of Qatar. The UAE, Bahrain and Egypt had joined the Saudi lead embargo. As for Turkey, they did the inverse by increasing food exports to compensate for shortages from the embargo. Two days following the start of the diplomatic crisis, the Turkish Grand National Assembly had ratified bill to send up to 5000 Turkish troops to Qatar. Therefore, it comes at no surprise that one of the conditions to lift the embargo is the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Qatar.
Somalia is another point of contention between the two Sunni majority states. As the Somali government forces took control of the nation’s capital Mogadishu, the then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first non-African leader to visit Somalia in nearly two decades. He promised to increase aid to Somalia, constructing hospitals and roads along with the largest Turkish military base abroad to train the Somali military. The increased Turkish activism in Somalia was accepted by the Somali central government with open arms. This angered the Saudi-Emirati alliance resulting in the closure of Emirati hospitals in Mogadishu. The Saudi and Emirates had since reverted much of their aid to Somaliland, a break-away state in northern Somalia.
The Turkish-Saudi rivalry had extended to the United Nations Security Council. In 2014, Turkey lost its bid for a Security Council seat. Despite them being successfully admitted in 2008, the Turks were rejected in 2014 receiving only 60 votes. Although there are many factors behind this loss, such as Turkey’s growing aggressive foreign policy, the bid was also subject to an intense campaign by Saudi Arabia and Egypt against Turkey’s membership.
Aside from Somalia, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had been gaining the upper hand in this rivalry. The election of U.S President Donald Trump, along with the rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, resulted in stronger than ever ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia: with arms deals worth $110 billion, along with a three-week tour of the United States by MBS. Meanwhile, Turkey has been subject to American sanctions over the imprisonment of an American Pastor who only recently was released. As Saudi Arabia diversifies its economy, the Turkish lira declines.
The fact that Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Istanbul was a huge miscalculation from the Saudi leadership. The Turkish government has used the case to their benefit by improving their dire relations with the West. The U.S pastor has since been released from house arrest and sent back to the United States. The Turkish state had slowly attempted to legitimize its state-run media in the West, by using it as the primary source for the case. As Saudi Arabia cancelled its annual diplomatic reception in Washington, Turkey received Mike Pompeo, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Vladimir Putin. Could this be Turkey gaining the upper hand in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia?
Samer Hindi is the editor for Middle Eastern affairs at iAffairs. He is also an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Having worked and studied in Turkey and Jordan, he specializes on the Middle East. The bulk of his research is peace, conflict and development in Turkey and the Levant. You can connect with Samer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured Image Courtesy of U.S. Department of State