It makes sense. Both wanted Assad out. Both committed funds, military training and logistics to the various armed movements that sprung from the Syrian revolution to topple the government. Both hosted Syrian opposition parties and both publicly denounced Assad and lobbied the West for greater support for the Syrian revolution.
Both are sensitive to Iran and have the power to apply significant pressure. Iran politically has little leverage over Turkey. It cannot handcuff Ankara using the Kurdish issue in a similar manner to the Russians because a successful Kurdish movement in Turkey threatens to spill over into the Kurdish areas in Iran and igniting a domestic independence issue of their own. Moreover, Turkey and Iran have a long history of antagonism and are not natural allies.
So why, despite all this, are the Turks and Arabs incapable of forming a successful and credible alliance?
The ‘colonial’ complex
Without understanding how the modern state of Saudi Arabia was founded, it is impossible to understand the complex that Saudi Arabia has towards a strong Turkey. The founding King AbdulAziz’s march on Riyadh and subsequent conquest of Najd and Hijaz was essentially an uprising against the Ottoman empire. To justify his actions religiously, the Ottoman Empire needed to be presented as something other than an Islamic entity. The Empire itself made this easy with rabid Turkish nationalism taking hold and the days of all ethnicities holding the highest positions irrespective of background long buried in history.
To this end, the narrative of the Ottoman Empire as a ‘colonial’ power as opposed to an ‘Islamic’ Empire took hold in the Saudi education system, establishing a new subconscious among the Saudi political elite.
However, it is narrow-minded to suggest the ill-feeling was all one way. Rather than address the problems of Turkish nationalism and its impact on the other races of the Empire, the Ataturk regime fed a different narrative; one of betrayal. In other words, the “Arabs betrayed us and sold us out to Europe. Therefore, we can only depend on ourselves as Turks”.
No mention was made of the alienating policies of the Ottoman Empire that created a conducive environment for Lawrence of Arabia to convince the Arab tribes to rebel. Ataturk and his disciples pulled Turkey out of the Muslim sphere, revamped Turkish letters from Arabic to Latin, and banned the call to prayer in Arabic (insisting it had to be in Turkish). Those who sought some sort of restoration of Muslim ties were imprisoned or executed under the banner of ‘secularism’ with the army as a self-appointed ‘defender’ of the modern Turkish stated.
Saudi takes up the religious mantle
The vacuum in the religious leadership of the Muslim world following the withdrawal of the Turks was a welcome reality for Saudi Arabia. The Saudi leadership embraced the vacant position, promoting its own scholars and successfully establishing itself as the go-to point for all religious affairs. The influence was undeniable. It became haram (forbidden) to revolt against the ruler yet discussion over King AbdulAziz’s conquest in this light was forbidden. Students flocked from all over the world to study in Mecca and Madinah, providing an efficient export of Saudi influence. However, their growing ties with the United States following King Faisel’s assassination gradually created a cloud over this and resentment began to grow at the disconnect between ‘talk’ of Islam and ‘action’.
Turkey returns to the Islamic fold
Following years of Saudi religious leadership, the AK Parti’s taking of power in Turkey presented the greatest challenge to Saudi’s global leadership in recent history. Abdullah Gul and Receb Tayyeb Erdogan had demonstrated that Islam could reach the highest powers of governance through democracy and could succeed under this banner economically, politically and socially. Anatolia, many Kurdish areas, and many inner-city districts embraced this new wave of ‘Islamisation’. Turkey began to build mosques domestically and abroad as far as Yoyogi-Uehara in Tokyo. Turkish religious authorities ensured every Imam in city mosques could recite in a melodic voice, encouraging people to attend prayers. Istanbul began to host religious scholars from the Arab world, with conferences dedicated to the revival of the Islamic identity.
As AK Parti continued to win election after election, glaring questions were being asked in the Arab World: Is this not a better form of governance than dictators putting every dissenting voice in prison? Is not the Turkish form of ‘Islamic’ governance that wins fairly in elections a better system than the current system of ‘rule by might’?
These were, and remain, very uncomfortable questions for Arab leaders. Despite providing evidence that many of AK Parti’s policies are un-Islamic in nature, this seems irrelevant for the clear majority. In comparison to Arab leaders who desperately curry favour with Washington, Erdogan’s gung-ho approach inspires confidence in an identity desperately being suppressed by minority liberal forces with state backing. It is telling that Abu Dhabi defended Trump’s decision to ban arrivals to the US from Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, and Sudan, while Erdogan was the only Muslim leader to condemn it.
Turkey is popular
Herein lies the issue. Erdogan enjoys much support among the Arab masses. In the eyes of many Arabs, Erdogan is an efficient operator who overcame Western anti-Islamic sentiment and brought his Islamic identity to power through peaceful, democratic means. This view is so prevalent that criticism of Erdogan in the West is often received in the Muslim world as rooted in a hatred of Islam as opposed to any real concern for human rights.
The justification can be summarised as follows:
“If Erdogan professed secularism, he would not be attacked so harshly. Mubarak in Egypt lasted decades despite human rights violations. He had the blessing of the West. The same with Ben Ali in Tunisia and the other Arab leaders. Therefore, we can conclude it has nothing to do with human rights. So, the real issue lies in what Erdogan preaches, and the fact that Turkey is now powerful enough to dig its heels in and resist Western pressure. This is why the Liberal West despise Erdogan so much.”
The proof of this sentiment for these advocates is in the reaction to Erdogan’s public condemnation of Merkel’s use of the word ‘Islamic terrorism’. Erdogan’s confronting of Merkel in the press conference sent many in the Arab World into a euphoria; “This is the kind of leader we need. Someone who is proud of where he came from”.
Fear of Neo-Ottomanism
In the face of Erdogan’s popularity, Saudi Arabia finds itself flailing. Moreover, Turkey’s economic independence means that the Saudi petrodollar has failed to lull Ankara into some sort of subservient relationship akin to that between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In other words, Saudi is struggling with the reality that it must deal with another regional power as an equal as opposed to as an ‘elder brother’. This has spilled over into foreign policy with the Saudis reluctant to support the Syrian revolution if it means it will send Erdogan’s popularity ratings sky-high.
In light of Arab antagonism, Turkey has found itself forced to seek allies elsewhere. Rejected by Europe, Turkey has fallen back into an awkward alliance with Damascus and Tehran, taking advantage of its geographical borders. For Erdogan, this alliance is a product of necessity rather than personal desire.
Saudi will not be a number 2
In short, Saudi fears playing second fiddle to Erdogan. The AK Parti are a living proof that there is a viable political, economic and social Islamic alternative to the dictatorial systems in the Arab World, one that provides economic prosperity and global recognition. Erdogan’s very presence continues to raise difficult questions for Arab dictators and Turkey’s de facto neo-Ottoman foreign policy has caused great discomfort in the Arab capitals.
Turkey is undeniably more powerful than any of the Arab states and this causes great concern. This reality essentially means that although Turkey is the ideal ally, it is an alliance in which they cannot be contained and would be seen as a modern day equivalent of giving allegiance to a Sultan.