Saudi Arabian – Turkish Rivalry in the Middle East

Event Information



The Middle East Policy Council convened its 94th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, November 30th: “Saudi Arabian – Turkish Rivalry in the Middle East.” Exchanges following the recent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi exposed the growing competition between Riyadh and Ankara for influence in the Middle East. But this rivalry is not as clearly defined as the one between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and involves both shared interests and diverging political visions of the future of the region. The panelists each explored these nuances, based upon their significant experience in both countries, and speculated on how U.S. policy should address them.


Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Ambassador Ryan Crocker (former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon); Hussein Ibish (Senior Resident Scholar, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington); and Bülent Aras (Professor of International Relations, Sabanci University).


Ambassador Crocker emphasized how both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been critical U.S. partners since the end of World War Two. But he believes that both relationships are nearing a crisis point, and that the future shape of each one is uncertain. The “oil for security” underpinnings of the U.S. – Saudi relationship are fading as the U.S. pursues energy independence, yet many U.S. allies in Asia continue to depend on the Saudis for oil exports. Turkey remains a founding member of NATO, but increasingly looks to regional influence rather than European integration. He also mentioned the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood active throughout the region, a factor that further complicates how the U.S. formulates its relationship with Turkey. And while events like the Khashoggi murder and the war in Yemen could be further turning points in U.S. – Saudi relations, Ambassador Crocker advocated for continued U.S. engagement in the region, given the lack of viable alternatives.


Dr. Ibish expanded on the binary conception of the word “rivalry,” suggesting that Turkey and the Erdogan-led political model there present a “third camp” that challenges Saudi influence in the Arab World. This “third camp”  – while not formalized and hypothetical right now – might include Qatar, Jordan and Kuwait in a more vertically integrated alliance. This Sunni Islamist camp would diminish the unity and overall coordination the Saudis could depend upon to oppose Iran, their primary rival in the region. Beyond this forward-looking concern, Dr. Ibish believes that the Turks deftly played the Khashoggi incident, weakening the leadership in Saudi Arabia without directly undermining it. Given the various shared interests between the two countries, neither side is interested in promoting a real weakening of the other. But in the case of the Turks, the goal is to weaken the regional Saudi influence so that they can operate more freely with states like Iran (and Qatar, more recently), that have poor relations with Riyadh.


Dr. Bülent views the Arab Spring as the turning point in Saudi – Turkish relations because the Turks supported the Muslim Brotherhood and electoral transitions in the region in stark contrast to the Saudi aversion to any formal role for the Brotherhood in regional politics. The arrival of the Trump administration further complicated matters, as instead of assuming an even-handed posture vis-a-vis different allies in the region, the U.S. established a clear alliance with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with particular focus on containing Iran. Dr. Bülent thinks that this distancing between Turkey and Saudi Arabia has been costly to Turkey and that both countries’ interests would be better served by finding common ground, rather than deepening their rivalry.


The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript of the event will be posted in a few days at and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email

Event Speakers

Amb. Ryan Crocker 

Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon

Diplomat-in-Residence, Princeton University 


Dr. Hussein Ibish

Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington

Weekly Columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and The National (UAE)


Dr. Bülent Aras

Professor of International Relations, Sabanci University

Visiting Researcher, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute




Amb. Richard J. Schmierer 

Chairman and President, Middle East Policy Council

Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman



Dr. Thomas R. Mattair

Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council


1st Street NE 

U.S. Capitol Visitor Center (map & directions)


Washington, D.C. 20515

10am – noon ET

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