If you are dealing with rational actors (which is surely not always the case) global geopolitics is a bit like high math; there are routinized equations– strategic moves on the map—that just make logical, irrefutable sense. The recent visit by the Saudi Crown Prince to Ankara heralds a possibly decisive strategic counter-stroke to rising Iranian adventurism in the Middle East. Enduring, closer Saudi-Turkish ties provide political balance to Iran’s growing ambitions, amounting to nothing less than the nascent formation of a competing strategic bloc in the region.
Closer Saudi-Turkish ties have been a long time coming. Since now President Erdogan became Prime Minister in 2003, relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have gone from being coolly correct to far warmer, a deepening link that extends beyond the provision of Saudi oil for Turkey’s economy into the vital realm of strategic affairs.
Indeed, since the failure of the Arab Spring, this relationship has become far more of a security relationship as both Saudi Arabia and Turkey of this basic strategic fault line. The most important example of this burgeoning relationship and confluence of primary interests is that both Saudi Arabia and Turkey champion groups who are in rebellion against the Syrian government. Saudi Arabia has also given strong diplomatic support to Turkish military operations in northern Syria that are directed primarily against the Kurds. The endless wartime crisis in Syria has thrown Turkey and Saudi Arabia more and more onto the same side of the regional strategic equation.
Likewise, both Riyadh and Ankara have been deeply disappointed with their long-time strategic partner, the United States. Under the Obama administration, both increasingly view the US as a force that, rather than being a mutual ally and source of help, is getting in the way of their hopes and designs by virtue of its ostensible timidity and its diverging foreign policy practices, ranging from its perceived timidity in Syria to its landmark nuclear deal with Iran. For both the Saudi and Turkish governments, this newfound America tilt toward Tehran, bringing Iran in from the diplomatic cold, is both unacceptable and dangerous.
Over the issue of terrorism, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have increasingly been victims, and have found further common cause. Both have publicly increased bilateral cooperation to fight terrorism, as Riyadh and Ankara now increasingly emphasise the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as a multilateral organisation around which Muslim majority countries can come together and pool their resources to fight terrorism. Increasingly, military cooperation between the two countries has taken place under the OIC umbrella.
In personal terms, the new relationship’s strength can be seen in that in the last visit by King Salman to Ankara in April 2016 President Erdogan himself met him at the airport, even though protocol and precedent dictated only that a senior Minister meet the King. In symbolic terms, Erdogan wanted there to be no doubt as to the personal value he places on the Saudi-Turkish relationship.
Crucially, at the moment of maximum danger, Saudi Arabia gave strong diplomatic support to Erdogan’s government during and after the failed July 2016 coup. This also suggests that Saudi Arabia sees its new friendly relationship with Turkey as something that is primarily due to Erdogan on the Turkish side; he is the indispensable man knitting Turkish interests to those of Riyadh.
This all being so, a strong caveat must be mentioned. Turkish officials—playing both sides of the strategic triangle–have recently made several high-level visits to Iran and have begun negotiations with Iranian officials, now that sanctions have been lifted, to begin doing business with Tehran again. Despite strong strategic disagreements with Iran over its foreign policy in Iraq and Syria, Ankara has moved forward with partially re-engaging with Tehran, sensing there is a real chance for enhanced commercial opportunities.
This Iranian counter-example proves the adage that alliances in the Middle East are rarely set in stone; it is more useful to think of the major players drifting towards or away from one another. While there is no doubt whatsoever that Ankara and Riyadh have (perhaps definitively) drifted closer together their links—as is true for all states in the fluid Middle East—are not absolute.
But for all the strategic hedging, something important is going on here. As both the administrations of King Salman and President Erdogan are rational actors on the geopolitical chessboard, they have followed the predictably logical course of together balancing against growing Iranian power in the region. Don’t look now but an enduring (for all its very real fluctuations) new balance of power is coming about in the Middle East.
Published in Al Arabiya online, October 4, 2016