10:00a.m. - 12:00noon
U.S. Capitol Visitor Center
1st Street NE
ROOM SVC-209-08 Washington, D.C. 20515
See below for the full video, an event recap and a transcript (unedited) of the panel's comments.
Middle East Policy Council
94th Capitol Hill Conference
Saudi Arabian-Turkish Rivalry in the Middle East
Ambassador 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
Richard J. Schmierer,
Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman
Thomas R. Mattair,
Middle East Policy Council
Location: SVC-209-08, U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Washington, D.C.
Time: 10:00 a.m. EDT
Date: Friday, November 30, 2018
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER: Good morning, everyone. Could I ask everyone to take your seats? Grab a last cup of coffee or anything like that, and then grab your seats and then we’ll get started. We just have the two hours, we have three fantastic panelists, so we do want to take full advantage of the time we have.
Well, good morning, and again, welcome. Let me introduce myself. I’m Richard Schmierer. I’m the president and chairman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. I’m very pleased to welcome you on behalf of the Council to this, our 94th Quarterly Capitol Hill Conference.
The topic for today’s program, “Saudi Arabian-Turkish Rivalry in the Middle East,” is an issue which we feel has gained quite a bit of prominence in the aftermath of the October 2nd murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As information about Khashoggi’s fate emerged in the weeks following his death, a dynamic began to play out between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and this dynamic suggests a kind of a rivalry between the two countries for influence in the Middle East. And I think it’s a dynamic that maybe has been underappreciated by those who follow events in the region, and so today we’ll have an opportunity to delve into that topic.
Before I turn to the program, however, I would like to say a few words about the Middle East Policy Council. Our organization was established in 1981. We’re an NGO, and our purpose is to promote dialogue and education concerning the U.S. and the countries of the Middle East.
We have three flagship programs: one is this conference, our Quarterly Capitol Hill Conferences. We hold these every three months up here on the Capitol, specifically because we are looking to try to engage with people here, staffers and others who are involved in U.S. policy issues.
We have our journal. You probably saw some copies on the table outside on the – as you came in. We’re very proud of our journal; it’s quite well known for the information that we put out. We actually – it’s found in 15,000 libraries around the world, and so we feel that that’s one of our really most effective programs.
And then our third main program is our TeachMideast educational outreach program, which basically is aimed at secondary school students and teachers – again, another group who we feel could learn more and would do well to know more about the Middle East, and so that’s what we try to promote. So I would encourage you, if you have the opportunity to visit us on our website, which is www.MEPC.org, or our TeachMideast website, which is www.TeachMideast.org.
Now let’s turn to today’s event. The program today is being live streamed on our website, so let me welcome all of those who are viewing the program via the internet this morning. We will be putting the proceedings of the conference up on our website, and we will also be publishing a transcript of today’s event in the next issue of our journal. And there will be a recap of the discussion put up on the website in the next few days as well.
With that, let me turn to our panelists. We’ll begin the program with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, whom I had the honor of serving with in the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service officer.
Ryan has served as a diplomat – or had served as a diplomat for almost 40 years, attaining the rank of career ambassador, which is the highest rank in the Foreign Service. He held the position of U.S. ambassador in six countries: Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Lebanon, and he is currently diplomat-in-residence at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.
Our next speaker will be Dr. Hussein Ibish, who is the senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Dr. Ibish is a weekly columnist for Bloomberg and also for the UAE-based newspaper, The National. He is also a regular contributor to other U.S. and Middle Eastern publications, and a frequent radio and TV commentator.
Our third speaker is Professor Bülent Aras, who is on the faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabanci University near Istanbul. He is also a visiting researcher at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Professor Aras has published 13 books on Turkish foreign relations including several dealing with Turkey and the Middle East.
I’d like to thank all three of you for joining us today. The program will begin with each panelist delivering brief opening remarks. This will be followed by a discussion session which will be moderated by my colleague, Dr. Tom Mattair, the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council.
Now please note that we have placed index cards on all of the seats. Please use these cards to write down any questions which you have as the speakers are speaking, and hold them up so that our staff can collect the cards and give them to Dr. Mattair, who can then consolidate the questions for the Q&A session.
With that, let me turn the podium over to Ambassador Crocker.
Ryan, could you step up here – it’s for the video of the presentation.
AMBASSADOR RYAN CROCKER: Well, thank you, Richard, and good morning to all of you. If you hang around the Middle East long enough, you get to meet a lot of people, and the nice thing about it is that they cycle through your life as one goes forward. I recognize many people here, but two in particular I’d just like to mention as exemplars of good things in terrible times: my former colleague Anne (sp) is here. Like me, she is a survivor of the April 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut. Unlike me, that blast broke just about every bone in Anne’s (sp) body. Every single person who was injured in that attack and got to the American University Hospital alive stayed alive. At that time I think it was beyond doubt the best trauma center anywhere in the world because they had seen so much of it.
Anne (sp), I will always remember going to visit you, and I just wanted to touch you in some way, and with 117 different breaks – or whatever it was – you were not generally available for touching, so I found a toe that looked whole – (laughter) – and gave a little tug on that toe. You never lost your positive outlook, your cheerful attitude that not only sustained you through that trial, it reflected off the rest of us. So thank you for that. Thank you for your service through that and then far beyond.
Mohammed (sp) is another figure from my past. I didn’t recognize him, even when he introduced himself. That’s because when we intersected – this would have been nine months before the horror of the embassy bombing, we intersected in September of 1982 in the immediate aftermath of another unspeakable horror, which was the massacre at the Shatila refugee camp. I worked very intensely as a political counselor in Beirut at that time with some truly great Americans on this end, and we were able to bring him and his brother to the U.S. – again, two among many, but these things count, they make a difference. We made a difference in your lives and those of your brother through the work you have done. Since you’ve been in this country you have enriched all of our lives, so before I go into this long sequence of doom and horror – (laughter) – I just wanted to get that out there; the small, good things.
So Turkey and Saudi Arabia – great subject, let me tell you why. In very real and enduring ways, both countries have been absolutely critical U.S. partners in the aftermath of World War II. Turkey, a founding member of NATO, after World War I, of course, Turkey no longer owned the Middle East as they had for centuries before under the Ottoman Empire, but was always a place of significant influence and indeed advice for us, so again, a critical NATO relationship that was there at the beginning, at the foundation of NATO.
A little bit different, obviously, with Saudi Arabia, but also an enduring relationship, again, that goes back to 1945. The war was not even over in Europe – February 1945, the historic meeting between a very ill FDR and Ibn Saud on the deck of a U.S. warship in Great Bitter Lake, the USS Quincy. That an ailing president would make that trip out at that time and to have the meeting on a ship of war underscored the significance of what happened that day in February 1945. That forged the enduring relationship with the kingdom and, through the kingdom – the heart of that region – based on the fundamental premise or transaction if you will – though it became far more than that and is – oil for security. Oil, of course had been discovered in Saudi Arabia before the Second World War had not really developed; nonetheless, coming out of that war we knew that clearly the largest reserves in the world were likely to be located in Saudi Arabia.
So present at the creation, if you will, these relations go back very far and run very deep. In some respects, one could make the case that it’s closer, perhaps, with Turkey because of the NATO membership, because we have still the use of Incirlik in Turkey as an air base, which has been crucial to a lot of what we have done and what we have done together against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It would have been a very different situation for us, for the region, and indeed internationally had we not been able to base many of our operations out of Incirlik. So it becomes pretty important.
Turkey stood with us in Korea. They kind of wanted their troops to go wherever it was hardest. I had a friend in later years who had been in the military. He was of Greek origin and spoke Greek, so was attached to Greek troops in Korea, and recounted a story that he said he saw time after time the Turks would be given whatever impossibly hard objective there was to go take. There would be this tremendous din of gunfire, plumes and clouds of smoke, and battle after battle when the smoke cleared, there would be a Turkish flag on top of whatever the objective was. (Laughter.) The point kind of being here don’t mess with the Turks.
So we’ll get into all kinds of things in the Q&A, so fast forward to where we are today with both, and you can say that if we are not in a relationship crisis with both, we’ve skated pretty close to it. And it – I think with both countries – could get better, could get worse. For those of you who may be a little bit newer to the region than I, bear in mind that as bad as things look in the Middle East, they in fact can get worse. I’m kind of the poster boy for that. (Laughter.) There is no bottom. And again, I underscore here that Turkey, in its post-World-War-I form – not an Arab land, does not control Arab lands in any occupational sense, but because of its unique position, can bring considerable influence to bear on what happens in the Middle East.
When I left the Middle East for what I thought was the last time as an ambassador – early 2009 – I looked back with real gratitude for the Turkish role in Iraq at a critical time. We had negotiated a very difficult set of agreements: one on security and that – something that served as a framework for our forces going forward, and another, much broader political agreement that we envisioned at the time being the basis for an ongoing relationship in Iraq and beyond Iraq, something the U.S. had never had before with any Iraqi government.
The complexity of politics at that time meant that it isn’t over ‘til it’s over and then it isn’t over. (Laughter.) Foreign Minister Zebari and I signed the agreement in October 2008. By signing it, we closed it. It would mean it would go up to the Iraqi parliament for ratification with only an up or down vote possible. The text would not be reopened. We worked hard, and we got that positive vote, but then because democracies are complicated, there was also the issue of the vice president signing off on it, one of whom was Tareq al-Hashimi, representing largely the Sunni community, and he – I think with perfect reason – had a lot of questions that we sought to answer. Most critically at that time, so did the Turkish envoy with whom we worked very, very closely. He had a connection that went back years with Iraq, and I have always thought that bringing the vice president finally aboard on that agreement had a great deal to do with the Turkish role. And these are things that do not make the headlines, that no one knows about unless you are out there – how personalities count, how histories count, and a little bit about how to try to manage those.
Now I’m not going to stand up here and take any whacks at a given administration – (pause) – maybe I actually will – (laughter). Again, looking at the moment here, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia are in a process of significant internal change; in Turkey of course with the ascension of President Erdoğan. He has really remade the entire pol-mil structure inside of Turkey, something I never dreamed I would see with respect to the Turkish armed forces, the Turkish army.
Just as luck would have it, I got to be in Istanbul for two of the coups – 1970 and 1980 – so I had a certain sense of the resilience of Turks. I mean, the restaurants stayed open, the bars stayed open, and traffic was way down. It was kind of nice. (Laughter.) But it also left me with the sense that we’re just going to have to live with the fact that the army is never going to be checked by a civilian government.
Well, that happened, and continues to go on happening, if you will. The – you know, so what role does President Erdoğan now envision in the Middle East? I’m not going to start going on here about the Kurds because I know that will come up and we can address it there – just putting it – just saying, it’s not that I forgot it, it’s just something I don’t want to try to deal with in these remarks.
So what’s the look forward? You know, what’s the outlook beyond Idlib? What’s the outlook beyond Manbij? You know, these are places that no one had ever heard of in this country, but then we’d never heard of an obscure archduke in an even more obscure town called Sarajevo in August 1914. There are any number of flashpoints as we look ahead on Syria, and I know we’re going to talk about that, too.
In the meantime, dust off your Barbara Tuchman book, The Guns of August, the war that nobody wanted and everybody got, and apply that to some of the developments in Syria now involving the Syrian regime, the Israelis, the Turks, the Russians, and you can see how – you can kind of see how World War I got started. And again, I won’t predict doom here – I’ll let my colleagues do it and all of you.
Again, in Saudi Arabia, we no longer rely on Saudi oil, but boy, believe me, our friends do, particularly our friends in Japan and South Korea, for example. So the question – and I don’t have the answer, I hope it will come out of our conversation – is our special relationship with these two countries now going somewhere that it really has not been effectively since 1945, and that would be somewhere not good. With Saudi Arabia, is it going to be the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, someone that I think probably everyone in this room has had some contact with? And the war in Yemen – we’ve all seen in this building how the Senate now has reacted to that, both the killing and the war – where is that going to take us? Where is a completely new leadership approach with the ascension of Mohammed bin Salman – where is that going to take the relationship if we get over these current challenges – because this is different?
And in Turkey, to a very large degree, I believe that where we are in Turkey has a lot to do with the Europeans, quite frankly, because basically over time the message from the EU became pretty clear: you Turks, you are certainly good enough to be a founding member of NATO so you can fight and die for us should that need arise, but you are never going to be good enough to join the gentlemen’s club of the European Union.
I believe – and I put this out there so that you can tear it apart – that that had something not insignificant to do with the rise of a politician who could tap into that sense of being dissed by the West, to take the message to Anatolia, not simply the drawing rooms of Istanbul or Ankara, and develop a really impressive, popular constituency, something his predecessors did not have. So I’m sure we’ll talk about this, and in a much more authoritative way. I didn’t want to leave that out there.
The last thing I’ll say here – because it’s what I know the least about – the ideological or theocratical differences between the two that we may be seeing play out a bit in the Khashoggi instant, the leadership of both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have an ideology, if you will, that they support, and in Saudi Arabia, of course, it’s the Salafi trend, persistently and wrongly labeled Wahhabism in this country and much of the West. It is not new. Dr. Ibish can explain all about that.
In Turkey with President Erdoğan, it’s the Muslim Brotherhood. Now the Muslim Brotherhood comes in a huge variety of flavors, you know. One of them would be the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which was way off on the far end of the scale, meaning that they were very big on car bombs, truck bombs, bomb bombs, anything else they could make blow up in Damascus, or Aleppo, or elsewhere, this going through the 1970s. Hafez al-Assad and brother Rifaat cornered them in Hama, and – everybody in this room knows what happened February 1982; nobody outside this room has a clue, but had a significant amount to do with the civil war that broke out in 2011.
At the other end of the – of the continuum, I would suggest you would find, say, the Muslim Brothers in Turkey and in Iraq as pledged to the system, and indeed, in the case of Turkey, certainly, it is a system through President Erdoğan. So this notion that we should, you know, label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization is as dangerous as it is idiotic, quite frankly. I mean, you know, we would – who are we going to talk to in Iraq? Who are we going to talk to in Turkey? If you want to talk about an assault on the democratically elected leader of a NATO member, that would be it, at least in my view.
Muslim Brothers in Egypt, of course, eschewed violence years ago, and as the only organized non-state-controlled political apparatus – after the fall of Mubarak – positioned to win the elections, as they did. And we all know how that’s gone since.
So again, I pose these out there as questions for my colleagues to address – you know, again in particular the role of Islamic ideology in both countries or lack thereof – I mean, it’s all completely overstated. I just don’t know, but we need to talk about it. And that has a lot to do, in my view, of the crisis in the Gulf, if you will, between Saudi Arabia, UAE, and the state of Qatar, which has – I don’t know how many Muslim Brothers are in the state of Qatar, but they have certainly assisted Muslim Brotherhood organizations outside, to the extreme displeasure of the Saudis.
So it is a(n) immensely tangled set of issues that we’re wrestling with here. My bottom line, I suppose, is as frustrating and difficult as they are, they are also extremely important. Do we really want to lurch forward farther into the 21st century with our relationships with both of these powers? And they are similar relationships, in tatters and getting worse. Do they? And what’s the way forward?
So having posed all the questions, thank you for – (laughter) – the opportunity. I turn it over to my colleagues who will produce all the answers
MR. SCHMIERER: Are there any questions yet to be picked up on the cards? Our staff will come around and get them from you.
HUSSEIN IBISH: Thanks.
All right, thank you very much. That’s a – certainly a tough act to follow, and thank you all for coming.
The key word in the title of this symposium is rivalry, right? And I think what it gets at is the unstable nature of the relations between Ankara and Riyadh, how multifaceted they are, how changing they are, and I wanted to try to kind of describe that, and particularly from a Gulf Arab point of view, or at least a Saudi point of view.
And I think the – what sets the stage for this more than anything else, as Ambassador Crocker was saying, is the turn by Turkey away from the West and towards the East, largely because of the rebuff of the EU that helped give rise, as you suggested, to AKP in general and Erdoğan in particular, Turkey’s vision of its – now the epicenter of its foreign policy shifted from an engagement with Europe to an engagement with the Middle East, looking back at its former imperial lands and to its fellow Muslim countries in the Arab world and in other parts of the Islamic world.
And this is a core element of Erdoğan’s ideology, of the AKP appeal, of the alliance that they have with other forces in Turkey, so it can’t be understated – the extent to which Erdoğan has ridden this wave and also then led Turkey in that direction can’t really be overstated. And that of course has greatly altered the nature of the Saudi-Turkish relationship. And this is all – even of course exacerbated by the very aggressive – especially domestic but even regional approach that the AKP and Erdoğan have taken after the failed coup of 2016. That’s – again, that just simply emphasized that every time this process has gone through a change it has been emphasized, and there is a kind of distillation going on here, so it’s very important.
And what you end up with is a situation where, very recently in the context of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi – as you say, a good friend – more than one senior Turkish leader said Turkey is the only logical leader of the Islamic world. Now, whether that means the whole ummah or the Sunni ummah or whatever, it doesn’t really matter. It is really, in a certain sense, a direct challenge to Saudi Arabia, which presents itself as the logical leader – on the grounds of history, on the grounds of geography, on the grounds of custodianship of the holy sanctuaries, and this unstated position, since the beginning of the third Saudi state in the ’20s, that only Saudi Arabia has a pure Islamic system that relies on the Quran and not on any kind of written constitution and whatnot. So, you know, when you’ve got a Turkey that sees itself not as an integral part of Europe, but as the only rational leader of the Muslims of the world, you’ve got a rivalry situation with Saudi Arabia, I think, by definition.
And, you know, I wouldn’t want to try to characterize the way Turkey sees its own foreign policy because I’m not an expert in Turkey, and because I think it’s also very hard – though I think my colleagues will do this – it has become very difficult, at least for me, to see where Turkish national interests, as they are defined by the state, end and the political interests of the AKP and the personal interests of President Erdoğan begin. This is a – it seems to me very fuzzy – a fuzzy line. Now maybe our colleagues can educate us, but for me that makes it a bit difficult.
But describing the situation from a Saudi perspective – you know, I’ll just tell you basically how Riyadh – I think how Riyadh looks at Turkey, and it will explain a lot of things. Now first of all, I do think Saudi Arabia sees Turkey, first of all, as a rival – just in those terms – another large state in the region with allies, and with a strong military, and with a major presence that it capable of projecting power and has to be taken seriously as another large state.
Second, I think that that’s offset by seeing Turkey as a necessary balance or ballast against Iran. The major Gulf Arab concern since 1979, and particularly since 2003, has been the idea of a revolutionary, hegemonic Iran which is both aggressively Shiite and revolutionary at the same time, and Persian as it combines all these kind of very threatening identitarian qualities that has scared the Gulf countries and especially Saudi Arabia and UAE very greatly, and that Turkey, under almost any circumstances, looks a lot less threatening than that. I mean, it’s very hard to imagine Turkey being seen as having quite that mix of threatening characteristics. So Turkey is an obvious necessary ballast against Iranian influence.
But at the same time, Turkey is another potential hegemon now that it is looking east, right? And I think that there are places in the Arab world, including in the Gulf, where memories of Ottoman rule are not extinguished, where talk about the only rational leadership of the Islamic world hits hard, where the Turkish efforts to cultivate their regional alliances with, for example, Qatar, and the Muslim Brothers, and others in the region – which I will talk more about – are seen as evidence of this growing potential hegemonic agenda, and of course, the neo-Ottoman rhetoric that sometimes is engaged in by various Turks including AKP people and such – and friends of the AKP – is noticed in the Gulf, and it is taken note of, and it is taken exception to, so – now I don’t think that – I think this is more along the lines of a potential issue rather than an immediate one or a real one, but it’s very much there.
What’s more alarming – and this is where the – you can see how the Khashoggi murder has brought this last anxiety to the fore – is the idea of Turkey as the leader of a rival third camp in the Middle East. And I think almost everyone accepts the idea that there are two rival camps in the Middle East: one is a kind of pro-Iranian alliance, mostly Shiites, also Bashar al-Assad and a few others, Lebanese Christians as well, but mostly a Shiite alliance. Even the Houthis are part of this in a weird way, even though they are not Twelvers/Shiites, but it doesn’t really matter.
The point is that everyone, I think, accepts that there is a pro-Iranian camp, and generally speaking, those opposed to Iran are seen as comprising a second camp, no matter how loose it may be. I mean, obviously when you’ve got Israel and the Gulf states in the same kind of general camp it’s not much of a camp since they don’t have relations, even though they are working on building relations. It’s much less, let’s say, vertically integrated than the Iranian one is, and that’s a real problem for this camp. But I think it’s fair to say there is a distinctly anti-Iranian camp led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and you could look at it as a pro-American camp or you could call it whatever you like.
Now many people end at that, but not the Gulf Arabs. The Gulf Arabs – the Saudis and the Emiratis would say, oh, no, there is a third camp. There is a third distinct camp, and it is the Sunni Islamist camp, and it is led by Turkey, and it includes Brotherhood parties all over the Middle East and Qatar. And this is an ideological camp, and that’s one of the reasons why we have a boycott of Qatar, and it’s one of the reasons why we’re so upset is that we see that this group is not loyal to the anti-Iranian cause; it’s really kind of Turkish-oriented. And I think there is – while there is a sense that Turkey helps to balance Iran, there is also an understanding that Turkey and Iran historically do not go to war, and Turkey and Iran are not going to fight it out. And it’s very hard to imagine a situation where the Turks and the Iranians don’t do some kind of deal in any given situation to share their interests somewhat. This is not making anyone in the Gulf sleep any easier. In other words, it’s easy to imagine the Turks and the Iranians just splitting the difference at their expense, right, so this is highly alarming.
And then when they – when they imagine the rise of a third camp, which is completely beyond their control, it looks like the whole region is fragmenting, and it looks like a net loss to them because this camp would not be in the pro-Iranian corner. It ought to be, this thinking goes, part of a Saudi-led pro-American alliance, right, and what are the Qataris doing playing footsie with the Turks, why are the Turks running around trying to build alliance in our – everyone should be working together in coordination with the United States to offset Iranian hegemony, and this just looks like a terrible kind of betrayal of that.
And so here, I think, is the epicenter of concern right now – is the idea that Turkey is the leader of this rival camp. And actually the thinking goes even further – it’s almost always unstated, but there is this deep fear that this third camp, if it exists at all – I mean, many people would say it doesn’t – but this third camp could evolve into a very – the most dangerous thing imaginable, really, which is an alternative to the current pro-American camp of Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, and a very loose arrangement with the Israelis, and the Egyptians, and others to kind of stabilize the region.
In other words, it’s imaginable, from a – I think from a Gulf nightmarish perspective that the United States would conclude that this alliance is fundamentally unworkable, dysfunctional, falls apart – look at the GCC, you know, having completely fallen to pieces over Qatar and with, you know, Kuwait even moving away and whatnot. And there – I think there is a concern that if the pro-Turkish camp, the Sunni Islamist camp could strengthen enough, you could see it not only vertically integrating, but starting to bring in other countries that are nominally part of the pro-Saudi camp but could conceivably defect. And I’m talking here particularly about Kuwait and Jordan. So in other words, you can imagine a block of Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, and Kuwait providing an alternative ballast for the United States against Iran in a much more vertically integrated alliance.
Now, you could easily turn around and say, look, Washington is not going to get in bed with a Muslim Brotherhood coalition. The Jordanians are not going to join this – what are you talking about? I’m not talking about a reality; I’m talking about an anxiety, but it’s a very real anxiety. It’s often unstated, but I think I would be remiss if I didn’t convey that nightmare scenario to you because it’s very much out there. And you could see all of this playing out in the context of the Khashoggi affair.
And I think the Khashoggi affair really kind of tells you where relations are because – and particularly if you look at how Turkey managed this scandal. It was very, very deftly done by Erdoğan and his people. What they – obviously they saw this as a great opportunity to bedevil and hobble a regional rival, right, and they did that. Saudi Arabia in general and Mohammed bin Salman in particular were kind of targeted, and the drip, drip, drip of information, the mixing of credible information with absolutely lurid – it’s hard to exaggerate the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, but they managed to do it, like live dismemberment, and slow cutting off of fingers – obviously stuff that’s no longer at all discussed. This hilarious idea that the whole thing was transmitted live on his Apple watch just – you know, really kind of silly stuff all mixed together to make sure that this story did not leave the front page for weeks and weeks, right, and then in a kind of uncoordinated partnership with the Washington Post that wanted to keep – you know, quite rightly considered this a killing in the family and is still hammering away at it, which I think is perfectly understandable.
But at the same time, Turkey did not want to precipitate a rupture with Saudi Arabia because it doesn’t serve their – what serves their interest is to weaken Saudi Arabia but not create a total meltdown. So there was never a public accusation against Mohammed bin Salman from senior Turkish leaders; it was all – it was implicit or it was said by anonymous officials in the media. It was always deniable.
And President Erdoğan has gone to great lengths to shield King Salman from any question and, I mean, it’s a little – it doesn’t really withstand scrutiny because the king is – I mean, Mohammed bin Salman is not the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia in the way that, say, Mohamed bin Zayed is the de facto leader of Abu Dhabi. He is the – maybe a day-to-day ruler, but I don’t know anyone who is serious about Saudi politics who doesn’t recognize that the king retains ultimate authority here. You know, major national decisions are not being made against the wishes of the king. That’s just not where we are here. And he is not a vegetable who can’t be consulted the way some other titular leaders may be. That’s not the situation; otherwise we wouldn’t have seen this grand tour of Asia which he managed to pull off recently enough that we can be pretty sure about – no, outsourcing day-to-day administration to somebody else is not the same as relinquishing authority.
So when Erdoğan writes in the Washington Post that, I am absolutely sure that King Salman had nothing to do with this and no knowledge of it – hint, hint, hint about his son but not actually saying it – and therefore this does not constitute an act of policy. Therefore we do not have to break relations with Saudi Arabia – tells you exactly the kind of narrow tightrope that the Turks very successfully – not walked along, but danced merrily up and down on with great success. And I think they did manage to greatly strengthen their hand and greatly weaken the Saudi reputation, particularly the crown prince, create all kinds of headaches for the Saudi government, and also managed to unload Brunson, right – Pastor Brunson, who was useful for a while and then became an unbelievable headache, and the question was how do we get rid of this guy without looking like we’ve caved in to the Americans. Oh, this was the perfect opportunity. So they release Brunson, right, and get all the credit with Trump. Nobody in Turkey said, oh, you’ve caved to the Americans; they all said, what a brilliant move, what a smart guy you are, so it was just perfect. This was like excising a rotten tooth or something; it was just great.
So I'm actually impressed with the skill with which this was handled. And I think what it shows you is how bipolar – and I use that term advisedly – Turkish-Saudi relations are within the context of this rivalry. They’re pendular. Right? They tend to swing back and forth between cooperation, particularly when it comes to reducing the role of Iran or, in some other instances, versus kind of unstated cooperation. And I think if you look at the way their relations have developed on Syria, you can see how that works really well. When the uprising began in earnest, both Turkey and Gulf countries were supporting armed Sunni rebel groups, sometimes, especially in the case of Qatar, the same groups, sometimes groups that were operating in coordination, and there was really a fairly close alliance to try to get rid of al-Assad. After the joint intervention by Iran and Russia in 2015, the bolstering of – saving of al-Assad; let’s put it that way – the actual rescue of the guy by this foreign intervention and the big surge, military – and the coup in Turkey all helped to reshape Turkish ideas about what should happen in Syria, to emphasize containing the growing power of Kurds in the southern border of Turkey and not caring so much about the future of al-Assad anymore, which really was one of the two or three things that kind of killed the ambition of the Gulf countries to get rid of a pro-Iranian regime in Damascus and replace it with a neutral or an anti-Iranian regime, therefore taking away this major Iranian asset. The Turkish interest in that kind of went away. And there was this period of almost confrontation in Syria where the groups that were supported directly or indirectly by Gulf countries were almost being targeted by Turkey, and there was a real confrontation of interest there.
And I think what you’ve seen is that under the rubric of a Trump administration policy that’s becoming much more coherent in Syria and is focused on doing exactly what the Gulf countries were hoping for, which is working, first of all, on the ground to block Iranian interests, especially from creating a military corridor through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean – that seems to be out. I mean, a year and a half ago we said that may well happen, but it’s not going to, largely because of the Trump administration not leaving Syria. But in addition, there’s a move by the Trump administration to start a dialogue with Turkey, especially, but also with Russia to try to see what can be done to squeeze, to marginalize the Iranians to make sure that Tehran is not the big winner in Syria and limit their gains. And so this is all very positive.
So all of that kind of indicates the way in which Saudi Arabia and Turkey can still find themselves on – roughly on the same side. At the same time, you’ve just seen Turkey enter into a new military cooperation agreement with Kuwait, which, again, raises this fear of, A, a new Turkish hegemony and, B, the emergence of a camp that could even stretch out to incorporate countries that most people couldn’t imagine being part of it. And again, I mention Jordan and Kuwait as possibilities.
Now, it may be fanciful, but when you see new military cooperation agreements, that tends to exacerbate fears. So what we end up, then, is a really kind of bipolar, pendular relationship. And let me just say, I want to end by thoroughly endorsing Ambassador Crocker’s comment about there being no bottom in the Middle East. You know, things could always get worse. Right? That’s for sure. And, you know, as usual, Shakespeare wrote it best: Edgar in “King Lear” says, this is not the worst, so long as we can still say this is the worst. (Laughter.) And I think that’s exactly right, and that’s always the case.
MR. SCHMIERER: Thank you.
Any more cards for us?
BÜLENT ARAS: Well, thanks for all participating in this conference, and I would like to first thank the Middle East Policy Council for inviting me and also a word about my involvement with the Middle East Policy Council. I published my first academic article back in 1998 in Middle East Policy. That’s why it’s always an important journal for me, and since then I continue to publish. I think that’s the reason you invited me to talk on Saudi Arabian-Turkish rivalry in the Middle East.
I’m not surprised that, you know, I agreed with what Dr. Ibish said in his speech. That’s the result of rational thinking, but I’m not referring here is the motivation of Turks or the Saudis. I don’t like to carry this who’s more rational content between the leadership (here ?). But I certainly agree with what he said so far in many areas.
First of all, I would like to start with a warning and I believe it will be a false start to evaluate Turkish-Saudi Arabian relations merely as a rivalry. It’s rather, you know, it may be defined as concurrent elements of competition and cooperation together.
MR. IBISH: Absolutely.
MR. ARAS: If you go back to AKP’s coming to power, it was indeed a welcome development in Saudi Arabia since, you know, President Erdoğan, the former President Gul and (they’re ?) forced to mend the fences with the Arab world, and in general, Muslim world has been considered as an asset in Saudi Arabia back then. And don’t forget, you know, the Saudis nodded to election of a Turkish professor as secretary-general of OIC. This would never happen without Saudi approval back then, the Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu.
From Saudi perspective, at the outset, Erdoğan was, you know, was an asset, as a pro-Western Middle Eastern leader, and the Saudis also approved, you know, the fast-growing Turkish-GCC relations back mid-200s. Indeed, I also published a piece at Middle East Policy on Turkey and the GCC. Back then, there was a bright prospect between Turkey and Saudi Arabia within the framework of the GCC.
You know, the game changer here has been the Arab Spring and the Turkish position in the Arab Spring – Turkish support, Muslim Brotherhood movements, and in general, you know, this – what has been called in Turkey as electoral transition in those countries. And that means, you know, the popular world, which – (inaudible) – means, you know, political Islam and Muslim Brotherhood. But beyond this – and of course, this position almost has been anathema of the Saudi position, which desires to go back to, you know, pre-Arab Spring status quo.
But, however, beyond the differences in ideology, there was also, you know, Turkey’s increasing influence in North Africa, in Central Asia, Levant, and even in Yemen. And also, you know, as an example of, you know, these concurrent elements of cooperation and competition, Syria is a very good example. At the outset, you know, both wanted to overthrow Assad regime in Syria. But later, when it turned out that this issue became, you know, a matter of rivalry or competition, conflict between those, they supported, you know, different kind of transition in Syria and they backed different groups in Syria, while the overall and overarching common goal overthrowing Assad in Syria.
Well, there had been a brief period even after Arab Spring or during the Arab Spring in 2015. After the demise of King Abdullah there was a chance of rapprochement approximation between these two countries, and at that time, Erdoğan followed a, you know, wise policy of increasing his rhetoric of condemnation of Iran. He backed Saudi position in Yemen and all he wanted is Saudi support in return in Syria. And, you know, if you remember the early 2015, this Saudi-Turkish position brought Assad to the brink of collapse in 2015. But it didn’t survive much and mostly because of Erdoğan’s reticence to, you know, to back wider Saudi designs, for example, you know, this Army of Islam against Iran.
Well, this divergence has been very costly to Turkey, although, you know, there was a brief period that – at least there was a sense that Obama administration supporting Turkish position in the beginning, but other than – it’s not possible to argue that Turkey’s gained much following this course of line in the Arab Spring.
Syria became a major burden, isolated Turkey from the Middle East. And regional instability and insecurity hurt Turkish interests, Turkish access to Arab markets, and the Gulf financing in a wider sense. And also on the Saudi side it was a strategic blunder, I believe, to alienate Turkey in the (club’s ?) effort to contain Iran.
There is also UAE factor here. Back in, you know, 2011, in particular in Libya case, UAE adopted an emotional position against Turkey. Why Turkey is choosing Qatar, you know, over the rising, shining Gulf, you know, the country, UAE? And this UAE line against Turkey has been able to convince the Saudi Arabia – according to, you know, the Turkish perception of what’s happening in the Gulf, the UAE line has been successful to persuade Saudis that Turkey and Qatar are enemies who are open to Iranian position and they are dangerous to pro-Western Saudi Arabia and UAE in the region.
Well, the feelings are mutual. There was, you know, there’s widening distaste against the UAE, the pro-government circles believing – you know, believing that UAE was behind the failed coup against Turkish government, and of course with Saudi approval.
Well, in the meantime, looking at the U.S. factors: For Turkish leadership for the AKP, well, they had a euphoric welcome for Trump administration. Their perspective was the new president is going to, you know, find a common ground with Turkey and Syria. They are going to extradite this Turkish-Islamic preacher, Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the United States, to Turkey. And even they are going to have a tougher stance in Syria that will isolate Iran in Syria. But Turkey in return got Saudi-UAE-Trump alliance, which hurt Turkish interests in Syria and which is following a destabilizing line against Iran, which will – eventually led to destructive spillover impact in Turkey. Well, this euphoric welcome has turned out to a disappointment in a short period of time, and there is here a UAE-Saudi factor in this disappointment.
Well, the blockade against Qatar in June 2017 has been also considered as a final move against Turkey to isolate Turkey from the Gulf, Middle East, and even beyond. And that’s why Turkey took, you know, a vital action to provide, you know, daily products to Qatar to save Qatar against the Saudi-led coalition. And they, you know, reinforced the Turkish military presence over there to prevent any kind of – (inaudible) – against the pro-Turkish Sheikh Thani.
Well, at that time there was also, you know, Erdoğan’s attempt to mediate between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. That may be an example to bipolarity Dr. Ibish was referring. But, however, that has been rebuffed by the Saudis that, you know, it’s too late. And later on it turned out that, you know, the Turkish military presence became a strong part of the Saudi ultimatum against Qatar.
Well, there is a Mohammad bin Salman factor here; he’s the elephant in the room when it comes to Turkish-Saudi relations. Well, there are many conspirator reports, arguments, if you follow the Turkish media, but however, it’s real that Mohammad bin Salman himself in March 2018 called Turkey as a part of, you know, axis of – an axis of evil, you know, like part of a coalition that – Iran and Daesh also takes place. I believe this was, you know, his outburst of the confrontational approach that both sides adopted, and now we see that both sides are unable to recover, and in particular, from Turkish perspective, due to Mohammad bin Salman’s decision to eliminate all rivals in the region.
Well, Mohammad bin Salman’s agenda to gather an anti-Iran bloc in the region, his certain moves from Yemen to Qatar, and willing to ally with Israel I believe alienated Turkish expectation to co-opt Saudis in any way in their regional policy, while the crown prince’s, you know, unwavering opposition to Muslim Brotherhood has the Turkish and Qatar position left no room for cooperation at the moment.
Well, again, going back to UAE role, UAE is, you know, is orchestrating, you know, openly anti-Turkish efforts in all possible platforms, from Sudan to Somalia to Washington and the Western capital. And it was never lost on the Turkish foreign policy elite that UAE funded a number of U.N. members in Turkey’s bid for, you know, membership to the U.N. Security Council. And this is going to be never lost on Turkish foreign policy elite because that resulted in, you know, a kind of humiliation of Turkish defeat with around 60 votes out of 193. Just, you know, a few years earlier this was the reverse and Turkey, you know, unanimously elected as a member of U.N. Security Council.
So, well, if we come to Khashoggi case, it certainly helped Erdoğan to gain moral ground in regional politics. And I think this is the start of this rationality discussion that – you know, that hurts Saudi Arabia-UAE line in the region. Well, it’s not a secret that Ankara would utilize any possible means to limit Mohammad bin Salman’s role in Saudi politics, well, and probably to encourage, you know, the other moderate elements, if there are any, in Saudi – in Saudi politics. Well, even some degree we hear the expectation is not to change Saudi domestic landscape, but, I mean, you know, some progress will be considered a success in Turkey.
Well, we are here referring to a very delicate relationship with Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi case. Well, on the one hand, Turkey certainly wants to have access to Gulf finance, but on the other hand, it finds itself, you know, in the middle of this dangerous Turkish-Iranian rivalry. And here there is, you know, an emergent rival leader in Saudi Arabia, so what Turkey can do is to use the Khashoggi case to weaken Mohammad bin Salman but keeping King Salman and the Saudi Arabia aside, and then, you know, it’s a – it’s a tightrope. But, however, there is a belief that this can work to preserve the relations with Saudi Arabia while weakening Mohammad bin Salman’s role in Saudi politics or his assertive line against Turkey. But that’s a matter of time to see.
But however, I am, you know, almost 100 percent sure that Turkey cannot put its domestic integrity into further risk with directly confronting either Saudi Arabia or Iran. That’s out of possibility. And we see it. You know, the world Erdoğan is playing Khashoggi case very well, but, however, there’s a certain degree of caution as well. That’s why, you know, my analysis on the Khashoggi affair and its aftermath is that it is actually a negotiation to moderate their attritional rivalry and consolidate Turkish interests in the Gulf. But this is aside from the humanitarian tragedy that I wish that would never happen.
Well, overall, the UAE-Qatar rivalry is a major setback for Gulf stability. And the Gulf crisis in itself underlines to find a common ground among the GCC. So in order to make, you know, the rationality discussion and the rationality in terms of leadership, you know, of change the region, the U.S. role, et cetera, first, you know, there is a need to put the house in order. And then probably we can talk of rationality. And, you know, if the U.S. funded or let – (inaudible) – it’s not going to bring peace to the – to the geography, and – which will, you know, continue these ongoing rifts and will alienate other actors, which can indeed play some roles.
From my perspective, Turkey and Saudi Arabia needs to find a common ground on regional matters, which will certainly calm many issues in that geography, from Palestinian questions, even in Yemen.
Well, Saudis can play a role to put an end to, you know, the Turkish-Egyptian rift. Well, and that can start from here in a way that Turkey can provide, you know, a counterbalancing role in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, which I believe Saudi Arabia needs very much. If we are talking about, you know, working together towards a regional common end, such a common ground is a necessity.
And I believe there is room for reconciliation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. These are, you know, two major powers. Probably, you know, Erdoğan’s transformation of Turkey may help in the sense that, you know, Turkey and Saudi Arabia may understand each other better in comparison to the earlier terms. But, however, it certainly requires, you know, Saudi’s distances from anti-Qatar position and moderation towards the Muslim Brotherhood. You may think, you know, this is not realistic, but the alternative is the illusory perspectives of stability and peace.
Well, thinking more academically – I’m, you know, the professor of international relations and geopolitics – what I see is, you know, geopolitical crimes committed by all sides. And I believe, you know, the choice is now between continuing to commit these geopolitical crimes for authoritarian survival at home – you know, keeping the power – domestic hold on power – or a little bit sacrificing for – (inaudible) – towards a common ground for addressing the crisis in the geography.
And this is all that I am going to say for now. Thank you.
MR. SCHMIERER: Any more cards?
MR. MATTAIR: First, I’d like to thank everyone for good presentations. And I think it would be good if we could come out of this meeting with some ideas for the future of American policy. So we might begin with an issue that was touched on but maybe not covered enough, which would be this: When Turkey and Saudi Arabia both look at the international system and look at maybe declining American power and influence and commitment and engagement after the – certainly over the last 10 or 15 years, and when they consider, perhaps, advice that they’ve given to the United States that hasn’t been followed – for example, King Abdullah advising the United States not to invade Iran, which then left the door open for Iran to enter the region, or the Turks not being happy about the way the U.S. enabled the Kurds to have autonomy in Iraq during the 1990s and beyond, or the way the United States did not engage deeply enough in Syria after 2011: To what extent has this changing global picture and the changing role of American power and engagement at the same time that Russia started to come back into the region – how has this influenced decisions that both countries have taken that have alienated the other one or that have helped create the rivalry and the disagreements in places like Syria and elsewhere, and vis-à-vis Iran, too? Can we start with that? Anyone who wants to –
MR. IBISH: I could. Do I have to turn this on? Yeah, there we go.
All right, so, Saudi Arabia has had to play a much more robust and forward-leading role in the region for three reasons: first, because it feels threatened by the rise of Iran and it’s not going to fail to act on that, and that’s just a circumstance that would have warranted a more robust Saudi regional posture anyway; secondly is the collapse of the traditional centers of our Arab power and influence. Cairo is looking inward, Damascus is ripped apart, Baghdad is, you know, from a national point of view, post-apocalyptic almost. You know, so these power centers, traditional power centers in the Arab world are nonfunctional, and they either simply can’t rule their own territory or, as in the case of Egypt, they look abroad in such a limited way that it constitutes an extension of domestic policy. For example, Egypt’s concern in Gaza is not really a foreign – it’s more of a domestic policy issue; the same with Libya. I mean, there’s such a geographical proximity, it becomes very hard to see this as projecting power much further than the border. (Laughs.) It’s an – in the same way that I think Turkey’s concern about Kurds, especially in Syria, is, again, almost more of a domestic issue than a foreign policy issue. So because of this vacuum of Arab leadership, I think Saudi Arabia has had to step up, UAE too, Qatar in its own way. There’s just a vacuum of Arab leadership. And the third is the decreased role of the United States, that you pointed out.
And in that context, then, I think all these three things come together, particularly the relative pulling back of the United States during the Obama administration. But as I think – Trump’s America first policies, though they’re hard to read, they haven’t been very coherently defined yet, but they look like extending some of Obama’s caution, right, and the idea that you really – the last thing you want is another war in the Middle East and stuff like that like, and that other – the notion of burden sharing – if there’s one idea that’s consistent between Obama’s foreign policy and Trump’s foreign policy is this emphasis on burden sharing that they both have, and that, to Saudi eyes, translates into fight your own wars.
Now, for them, they’ve done that in Yemen. Right? All they’ve asked for is some support, and now they’re getting crucified for it. Now, of course, one can – it’s no problem making the case against the Yemen war, both in theory and in practice, and that’s not a problem. But I’m just saying, from the point of view of burden sharing, it’s problematic to lecture a country like Saudi Arabia ad nauseam about how they need to fight their own wars, and then when they do, you get extremely upset and put sanctions on them. So I mean, I’m not attacking any of this; I’m just saying think about it in terms of burden sharing and it becomes very problematic.
Now, the relative vacuum that the U.S. sets up – and there was a sense that the U.S. was, you know, sort of looking into a potential arrangement with Iran that didn’t – because of the JCPOA that didn’t pan out. And there’s a real anxiety about not just the American presence but the reliability of the United States. So all of this prompts Saudi Arabia to take a more robust role. And then this is magnified by the role first as defense minister and then as the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who is a very audacious – let’s put it that way – and at times certainly reckless leader. So you combine all of that and you’ve got a very, within the limitations of what they can do, a fairly aggressive Saudi regional policy. I think Turkey has defined – since the coup, especially – has defined its interests more narrowly than before. But where they have identified something as a crucial interest – for example, preventing the rise of a unified PKK statelet in northern Syria, they have intervened very forcefully to stop it, even to the point of almost confronting American troops in Manbij and places like that, which did not happen but was on the brink of happening, and could have happened.
So what I’m suggesting ultimately is that the lack of U.S. – or the reduction of U.S. leadership and the sense that, at least in Riyadh and possibly in Ankara as well – probably; I would defer to you on that – that the U.S. is not only less assertive but less reliable, creates a situation where these countries, you know, not just Saudi Arabia and Turkey but others, are looking to define and secure their own interests independent of the United States and there – and are operating in an unstable area where terms of reference and balance of power is being negotiated in real time, right, and in a very changing kaleidoscopic environment. And that, I think, does exacerbate a sense of rivalry, a sense of anxiety, a sense of confrontation, et cetera.
What do you think?
MR. MATTAIR: I believe you said that it was actually the Russian intervention in Syria that broke apart the Turkish-Saudi agreement on who to support there.
MR. IBISH: I said that.
MR. MATTAIR: Oh, sorry. Sorry, Hussein – and that from that point on you had Turkey more concerned about containing the Kurds, and therefore you have a confrontational policy because the Gulf Arabs had been supporting the Syrian democratic forces and the YPG and –
MR. IBISH: Right.
MR. MATTAIR: And that’s something that Turkey objects to. That actually has something to do with the relationship and Russia –
MR. IBISH: Right.
MR. MATTAIR: – and who’s involved and who’s engaged and who isn’t.
MR. ARAS: Well, if you are talking about Russia – is this open? – if you’re talking about Russia, the Turkish-Russian relations or the complications in Syria is out of a necessity, because when Turkey downed the Russian jet in Syria, there was a brief moment of expectation in Turkey that there’s going to be, you know, regional and U.S. support to Turkey – if you all want to, you know, limit the Russian role in Syria, this was a perfect, you know, opportunity. But that did not – yeah, that didn’t happen. And you know, early on, when President Obama said that, you know, Assad is not a legitimate leader and he must go, up to that point, Turkey did not cease the relation with Assad regime. But despite, you know, this enormous domestic pressure, Erdoğan kept the relation with Assad regime. But after that, you know, there was an expectation that United States is going to do something, but it turned out to – a presidential brainstorming or something, you know, and intellectual declaration, and it did not happen, too.
So it was, you know, a self-help from realist point of view to ally with Russia to pursue, you know, this Turkish military operation against the PKK to prevent, you know, this emergence of wider PKK state over there. That’s, you know, mostly out of necessity. But when it comes, you know, of the Astana talks – the Turkey, Iran, and Russia – Turkey has, you know, a different perspective on Iran in Syria. Well, Turkey certainly wants to isolate Iran in Syria, but however, Turkey considers Iran part of, you know, solution, too. So that should be, you know – there is still a belief that there is room for diplomacy with Iran. So there should be a more, you know, more complicated, multi-leveled approach, according to Ankara, against Iran. You know, the Iranian role should be limited inside Syria, but, however, diplomatic law say Iran should proceed to, you know, act responsibly in Syria. Which will ever happen? That’s, again, a matter of time to see.
MR. MATTAIR: Ambassador Crocker, do you want to comment on this American-Russian involvement?
MR. CROCKER: Yes. The fact that everything worth listening to has been said won’t stop me from saying it again.
Yeah, Hussein in particular touches on, I think, a core issue here. It’s: What is the role of the U.S., not just in this region but globally these seven-plus decades since the end of World War II? You know, we in America created the postwar world order, if you will. I mean, NATO came – or sorry, United Nations came out of the San Francisco conference, the postwar international financial order out of Bretton Woods – that would be Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, not Bretton Woods, France – and, of course, NATO.
You flash back to the end of World War I, where the U.S. basically was sidelined by the French and the British, certainly sidelined in this region, and what we got then. You got a two-decade truce between two halves of a horrific world war. That’s all it was – 1918-1938. Well, with U.S. leadership internationally since World War II, we have seen a world, in spite of things like Vietnam, that has been broadly at peace in a way it never was before.
So before we kind of say, damn, the Senate was right to vote down the League of Nations thing – wish we could do that again – consider the consequences. If we do not lead, who will? I fear the answer to that is no one will lead, because no one can. It’s not that I stay up nights worrying about the Chinese taking over the world; it’s that the Chinese, nor anyone else, is not going to be able even to manage conflict. And as we look at what’s happening in Turkey, what’s happening in Saudi Arabia, we kind of see the, you know, where this could go. And again, this is, as you so rightly point out – I think both of you made this point – this did not start with President Trump; it started with President Obama. Now, Trump has elevated it to an art form – (laughter) – by, you know, pulling us out of the TPP and the Paris Climate Agreement –
AUDIENCE MEMBER: JCPOA.
MR. CROCKER: And the JCPOA, which, by the way, again, some in the Obama administration totally oversold that, to our peril and loss, by pretending it was more than what it was, and what it was was a reasonably good arms control agreement, not a treaty of peace and friendship. But that is – that spooked the Saudis, and the rest of the Gulf.
So again, what are the consequences going down the line? Saudi Arabia, for example, as you point out, took a look around and said, well, we’re on our own here, so we’re going to whack the Yemenis because they desperately need it. They let us know, what, 48 hours, 72 hours before, and that was done mil-to-mil, to Lloyd Austin, who was then commander of Central Command. And the Saudis weren’t asking. They were telling us: We’re going in; you’ve got some enablers we really – (laughs) – really would like to have and we hope you’ll give them to us, but if you don’t, we’re going anyway. Well, for someone of my generation, that was unthinkable, that the Saudis would ever be in that kind of position.
And I think you – as you say quite rightly, that may not be where they wanted to be, but it is where they are. And then the irony of us not having been there at the creation are now saying it’s not going well, you need to pull out. But that’s also a reality, if you look at the Senate vote yesterday, or day before.
Just a couple other quick things: the Turks and the Kurds. I was very much involved in the runup to March 2003 as deputy assistant secretary covering the Gulf with the effort to make our efforts in Iraq as successful as they could possibly be. One key element of that was having a northern front to bring the 4th Infantry Division down through Turkey and into northern Iraq. Well, that didn’t happen, thanks to the Turkish general staff, largely, that managed to see that what at first looked like parliamentary approval was actually not because there were not enough deputies to make it legal.
We were prepared to give the Turks very wide latitude vis-à-vis the Iraqi Kurds – dangerously wide, in my view, as someone involved in our processes. So if the Turks have encountered problems with Iraqi Kurds, they have only themselves to blame. Had that vote succeeded, it would be a totally different landscape, literally, in northern Iraq. I just toss that out there. I don’t know how widely known it is, but it was highly significant at the time.
The other thing that I’d point out, and I know this sounds like minutiae, but these things count. We, of course, have had a long, strong mil-to-mil relationship with Turkey. Turkey is a major customer for our weapons systems. Right now we’re working on an F-35 sale of very large proportions. But you know what? If Turkey actually goes ahead with that S-400 air defense system from Russia, I don’t think that F-35 sale is going to go – not for political reasons. It’s because it would almost certainly compromise our most advanced technologies to the Russians through that system. So keep – don’t get lost – (laughs) – in the details but some of these things get very, very important as you’re looking ahead to what kind of relationship we’re going to have.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, before we come back to American policy and what influence it has had on this rivalry, let’s come to something you said, Hussein. It is, where do the interests of the state begin and end compared to where the interests of Erdoğan begin and end? What is it about – is there something about the nature of these two states, Turkey being – well, having some post-Ottoman grievances that carried all the way through the 1920s until today, and having different, you know, ethnic and sectarian makeup, and being a democratic country, on the one hand, and then Saudi Arabia having some grievances against the Ottoman Empire for the fall of the first two Houses of Saud and seeing itself as the custodian of two holy mosques, having pride in its own form of government, which has taken the country from sand into modern economy and society. To what extent do these differences in the nature of the state contribute to the rivalry or make competition difficult?
And then you come to Erdoğan, the man, and MBS, the man, where you have one person who feels – Erdoğan feels rebuffed by the West, specifically about not getting into the EU, and is an Islamist and is committed to Sunni Islamism, whereas MBS is someone who is trying to engineer a top-down change and does think that their Salifism is worth defending and that their form of government is worth defending against the different vision that is being espoused by Turkey.
You have the nature of the state, you have the nature of the two men: talk about that a little bit in terms of why they have different policies.
MR. ARAS: Well, of course, I’m not a part of government – (laughs) – or I’m not a policy person anymore. And what I say is a pure academic analysis.
My sense is that Mohammad bin Salman, you know, reminds King Abdullah in Turkey. So when King Salman came to power, it was, you know, very welcome development in Turkey that, you know, a less assertive but more rational, wise king; he’s going to follow, you know, more moderate policies – you know, a rational containment policy against Iran, you know, a wiser, you know, Western line in the region. And mostly, you know, when this power shift happened to Mohammad bin Salman – so this, you know, kind of has been what we call in the psychology some sort of return of the repressed, you know, these former feelings towards Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah.
Well, looking from, you know, two different perspectives, in Turkey, you know, there is still, you know, secular, urban people good enough to protect, you know, Turkey’s modernization. Up to, you know, to Arab Spring, Erdoğan was also using this as an asset, and still using it, you know. He and most of his people, they are products of Turkey’s modern, secular system. They are graduates of those universities, the education system. Well, Erdoğan talks about, you know, a new generation, so on and so forth, but all those generations are going to be – (inaudible) – of the same system. He did not initiate a new education system, a new education thinking. Well, what this is mostly help to consolidate its support bases. But the Turkish state and the – you know, the – lots of years of – you know, of the the modernization experience, it’s still over that and it’s going to resist. But Erdoğan is not only the leader who can have, you know, the majority support. And this change from parliamentary system to presidential system made him, you know, the only possible leader for the foreseeable future. So only possible way to get him out of the picture was, you know, the coup, which is, you know, undesirable thing in any democracy, and it also failed.
So here, from Erdoğan’s perspective, he has, you know, the majority support at top, but there are still, you know, outside powers who are trying to figure out how to get rid of him. So this psychology, the survival psychology, is now prevailing. But I think he’s going to get over it not much later. Don’t forget, you know, this constitutional system change, all the elections, this political rift with the Gülen group. There has been so many wars. You know, one man can fight one war at a time, but he’s fighting many wars. So this psychology of survival is guiding him at the moment, and his political elite, and which is also sidelining Turkish state – (inaudible). That’s why, you know, what Dr. Ibish said, Erdoğan and the state, there is, you know, seemingly this difference, but it is going to converge at some point; otherwise, it is not sustainable. It will, you know, fall apart.
Well, again, you know, from an academic perspective, Erdoğan and Mohammad bin Salman get along. If they can find the common ground that, you know – if Mohammad bin Salman gives an image that he can control UAE , he can follow, you know, a balanced Iran destabilization project. This is what Erdoğan likes to hear now. But however, Mohammad bin Salman is – you know, he’s an emergent leader and he made clear that he’s going to eliminate all the rivals, Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkey’s part of Muslim Brotherhood, and he’s certain to eliminate them. So if there is a, you know, a common ground, Erdoğan – what – (inaudible) – Erdoğan is this, you know, not Muslim Brotherhood but Islamic brotherhood. He can forget all about and get along with it, like he did with Putin, you know. In 2015 after the downing of jet, Russian jet, it sounded he and Putin will never get along. But now you see, you know, on daily basis they are talking on the phone, et cetera.
I see, you know, looking at his practical side and looking to the way he needs to lead Turkey, I see from an optimist’s perspective – I’m always an optimist as an academic – I see a likely convergence ahead.
MR. IBISH: Yeah.
MR. MATTAIR: Did I understand you to say that he’s pragmatic enough to distance himself from the Muslim Brotherhood? OK.
MR. IBISH: Mmm hmm.
MR. ARAS: Well, I also don’t share, you know, the AKP is a Muslim Brotherhood party. Well, one color is that, but also there are other colors which can limit that.
MR. MATTAIR: Yeah.
MR. IBISH: With regard to MBS and Saudi Arabia, the decision-making process in Saudi Arabia not only is murky, it’s always been murky. It’s harder than Kremlinology. It’s a more complex puzzle; the dearth of good information, knowledgeable sources, et cetera, makes it almost a fool’s game. I do think, though, we can be sure of two things: number one, MBS, young, audacious, et cetera, has an enormous amount of power. And the degree to which the changes that he has overseen in the past two years constitute an autogolpe, a self-coup, which I’ve been calling them from the beginning, since the Ritz Carlton thing – can’t be overstated. The old system of Saudi Arabia, which was monarchical and sort of a modern feudalism with different fiefdoms and checks and balances and accountability within the royal family, and all that is pretty much wrecked. And there’s been a tremendous concentration of power around the crown prince.
But it also needs to be said that the authority for all of this comes from the king, you know. In other words, the king is a noncontroversial figure, relatively, in Saudi Arabia. His authority is uncontested. His right to be king is uncontested. His authority is really uncontested. Mohammad bin Salman does what he does precisely because of the sense that he’s doing it all under the rubric of the king, that the king has delegated all of this to him. And don’t forget: This is a king who has already replaced a crown prince. Right? Crown Prince Nayef was removed and Mohammad bin Salman was put in as crown prince. And in fact, even before that it was done. So the point is that it is not unthinkable that, from a structural point of view, that Mohammad bin Salman would not be the king. However, the amount of bureaucratic power that he has assembled and the apparent commitment of King Salman to his succession means that in fact he will be king.
Now, there’s very strange reality where he can’t be king because he’s become so radioactive in Washington and would be very hard for him to come here, but he can’t not be king because he’s going to become king. We’ll see how they figure that one out. But the point I’m making is that while I can’t – in Turkey it’s easier to distinguish between national and institutional prerogatives and the political or personal prerogatives. In Saudi Arabia it’s all deliberately but systemically and in theory mixed up. Right? It’s a monarchy, absolute monarchy, so its l’état is supposed to be moi. It’s not – (laughs) – you know, this isn’t an accident or a weird thing.
At the same time – and in fact, that’s one of the big differences between – where ideologically Saudi Arabia and Turkey, insofar as Turkey serves as a model for anybody, would immediately come into a problem is the republicanism of the Turkish model of, the AKP model of the brotherhood model in the Arab world. I agree, AKP is not exactly a brotherhood party, but it is a Sunni, Islamist and republican party – (laughs) – so it’s in that sense –
MR. ARAS: Majoritarian.
MR. IBISH: Well, majoritarian, yeah, if you can. That would be – no, I understand what you mean. I think you’re right. And none of that’s true of Saudi Arabia.
Now, I just do want to say one thing, in addition. This business of Islamism is – I think you’re absolutely right to locate the fundamental contradiction here between Turkey and its allies like Qatar, on the one hand, and UAE, on the other hand. UAE is the party in the region that is categorically opposed, unequivocally to all forms of political Islam and the politicization – the politicization of Islam and the Islamization of politics. Any version of that is anathema to Abu Dhabi’s perspective and to UAE’s perspective. They are committed to what amounts to secular politics in the region and to separation of religion and politics. Now, this, of course, is not really true of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia in a post-Arab Spring moment, particularly under MBS, is certainly anti-Muslim Brotherhood, to a very large extent, and anti-Islamist in a more general sense, in a way. But you can’t have Saudi Arabia standing for a total break between religion and politics, because Saudi Arabia presents itself as a religious state, as the custodian of the mosques and as the pure Islamic state, where the Quran is its constitution and all that stuff, so it’s not possible.
Secondly, you know, and you could say, well, what’s the difference between status quo Islamic politics and revolutionary Islamic politics, or republican versus monarchical – all this. OK. The point is, there is no clear break in Saudi Arabia the way there is in UAE.
The second thing is that MBS is not categorically, unwaveringly opposed to all Muslim Brothers, the way the UAE is. The example here is Yemen. All right? Saudi Arabia in the northern part of Yemen, where it has been operating, has been increasingly working with Al-Islah, which is a Muslim Brotherhood party in Yemen, which presents itself as part of this wave of post-Islamist groups led by Ennahda and also the Justice and Development in Morocco, et cetera, who’ve broken with three aspects of Muslim Brotherhood structure that are noxious and toxic to Arab governments, which is revolutionary nature, conspiratorial nature – i.e., illegal underground – and especially, and above all, transnational. So these groups say, well, we’re not revolutionary; we don’t want to change the system. We’re not conspiratorial; we’re not doing anything in secret. And we’re not transnational. In other words, Ennahda only comments on Tunisia and Tunisian foreign policy; it doesn’t talk about Sudan, or anything like that. And Al-Islah takes its position. Jordanian Muslim Brothers take this position. The Moroccan Islamists take this position. And it’s one that I think, in the end, Saudi Arabia could easily end up living with because it doesn’t threaten a return to Arab Spring or revolution or anything. It doesn’t really threaten –
MR. MATTAIR: It doesn’t threaten the state.
MR. IBISH: It doesn’t threaten the state. Well, OK, so that would potentially be a Saudi perspective. UAE, I think, would find all of it threatening. (Laughs.) And so there’s a big distinction.
So I just wanted to say, you can imagine that in the next decades that if Erdoğan emerges – is now recast as part of a post-Islamist, you know, movement with the – lacking those three qualities – the revolutionary, conspiratorial and transnational that I talked about – that Saudi Arabia could become very comfortable with that, potentially. Or not.
MR. MATTAIR: We have less than 15 minutes, so can we get into American policy now? Is there a way for the United States to re-engage to support both of these traditional allies in a way that helps them resolve some of their differences and helps us contain our adversaries? I think Turkey, for example, would not be happy with an Iranian nuclear weapon. Turkey is not happy with Iran’s expansion on the ground through the Shia Crescent to the Mediterranean. So how do we harness them together in this endeavor better than we’ve been doing? And what is it that Erdoğan wants from the Khashoggi incident that he would need to get? And is it going to be necessary for MBS to make some concessions because of the Khashoggi matter? And is it useful for the United States to be imposing sanctions on Turkey and Saudi Arabia if we’re going to be trying to bring them closer together in an effort to contain our common adversaries – which includes Russia, not only Iran. That’s a big question, but it’s a question about what should American policy be now.
Ambassador Crocker, do you want to talk first about that?
MR. CROCKER: Sure. I think we can all be very brief here because: What American policy? (Laughs.) Yeah, this has been a very interesting conversation to me thus far. In my remarks I tried to point out that in different roles, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been absolutely critical partners in the post-World War II international order. And I think that behooves us, before we let all this drift away, to go sit under a tree somewhere and consider what our vital interests are, what they have been and where they’re likely to go, and then bring regional – traditional regional partners into the conversation.
You know, what does Turkey envision as the gains they would like to make? What are the losses they seek to avoid? Same thing elsewhere. But if you’re going to do that, you’ve got to have a policy, and we’re kind of short in that department. I’d like to say it’s not just the Middle East, but it seems to be pretty well global right now, and I just go back to that kind of waking nightmare: If not us, then who? If not us, with what consequences, for our own security and for international security? And I find that a fairly frightening view right about now.
On the plus side, I think we’ve heard from both of my colleagues here that there is a flexibility and a pragmatism really in both leaderships to who they can live with and who they can’t. And I certainly garnered from that that we would have a lot to work with –
MR. IBISH: Oh, yes.
MR. CROCKER: – in Ankara and in Riyadh, if we had a framework to work from. This isn’t helped, of course, by the fact that this administration has not seen fit to move expeditiously, if at all, on things like ambassadorial or geographic assistant secretary appointments. You know, almost two years in, you don’t have ambassadors in kind of really important places like Riyadh.
MR. IBISH: Good nominee, though.
MR. CROCKER: Yes. Yeah. Great nominee, though that does raise another question. John Abizaid, of course, a career soldier, not a diplomat – in modern times we’ve sent two career diplomats to Riyadh, both Arabists, Jim Akins and Hume Horan. Boy, the Saudis didn’t like either of them – (laughter) – and both left short of tour. What they don’t seem to want in the kingdom is someone with the background and the skills to make, say, the politics of the royal family a little less opaque than they are –
MR. IBISH: Right.
MR. CROCKER: – because opaque is what they want.
MR. IBISH: Opaque is what –
MR. CROCKER: Now, I don’t think John Abizaid is a fluent Arabic speaker, but he certainly knows the kingdom and he knows the region. So let’s see how he does out there. Obviously, this would be the worst possible time for the Saudis to take issue with who we send to Riyadh, and he has had agrément, of course, but so did Hume Horan until they found out how deeply – (laughs) – he could get into their society. (Laughs.)
So, again, not to get lost in the weeds there, but, you know, I think what we’ve done here is to convince ourselves of how important these relationships really are and that we’ve got a lot to work with, as well as against. But then that just puts us back on the – that overarching question. You can’t do any of this without a policy.
MR. IBISH: Can I just say – I mean, I think from the Saudi perspective, the return of U.S. leadership would be most welcome, and there would be a tremendous lot to work with. I’ll defer to my colleague on Ankara’s perspective, but I think the Saudis would – are hoping for a much more robust American presence. And they’ve clearly bitten off more than they can chew in some places. And in other places, like in Syria, they were relying entirely on the United States to indirectly pursue their interests. And in Iraq it’s got to be a collaborative effort by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and others working politically and financially to incentivize Iraqis to come back into the Arab fold and get distance from Iran, with the United States playing its role. And I think Iran has a problem in Iraq when it faces a culmination of what the United States, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait bring to the table. But confronting any of those three on their own, I think Iran is in much better shape to continue to wield undue authority in Iraq. So it’s a good example of where these countries actually need each other, even to succeed in the very limited policies that are being pursued right now. So there’s a tremendous lot to work with. Yeah.
MR. ARAS: Well, I don’t know to what extent you are following the developments in Iran, but, you know, the destabilization of Iran is a real likely prospect, what, you know, the President Trump is doing, you know, out of this Sunni-Shia – (inaudible). Iran may come on the brink of collapse sooner than we assume.
So we have, you know, Iranian destabilization on the prospect, and what we need to, you know, to deal with Syria and Yemen. So there should be, you know, simultaneous policy to stabilize, you know, Syria and Yemen in order to to deal with these – you know, these emergent destabilizations. It’s going to, you know, have enormous spillover effect to Iraq, to Iran, to Afghanistan, to Central Asia. So how we are going to deal with – OK, these tough guys, you know, the powerful leaders, they agreed on to destabilizing Iran, but how they are going to handle it, you know –
MR. MATTAIR: Is that a policy for reducing Iran’s influence in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, by destabilizing Iran?
MR. ARAS: But I don’t know what’s going to happen afterwards.
MR. MATTAIR: Right.
MR. ARAS: So, you know, there should be a policy to deal with it, but also, you know, there should be simultaneous policies to work harder on Syria and Yemen, to at least, you know, to handle that one.
So, you know, that signal, you know, a kind of signal from Saudi Arabia, from the United States that, you know, there is a clear plan and policy on Iran, as well as, you know, a renewed, you know, engagement to Yemen and Syria is going to be, you know, very good signal to Ankara to persuade it to be, you know, on the board in all those initiatives. But, you know, before seeing the agenda or the future policy on Iran in Turkey, Turkey is going to, you know, try very hard like we have seen in, you know, this U.S. invasion of Iraq. We’ll see, you know, similar developments and less of disappointment with these countries.
MR. IBISH: Can I add one very quick thing?
It occurs to me that it’s worth saying that a strong U.S. engagement, strong assertion of American leadership would be so welcome in Riyadh, that if there were over a short period of time a re-establishment of trust and confidence in the United States, the United States could even shift to trying to be a balancing power in the region with success and with the backing of Riyadh. What makes it so hard is not that U.S. policy isn’t pleasing, it’s that there’s no confidence. If there’s confidence and trust, you could have even a more challenging policy and be successful.
MR. MATTAIR: I’ve tried to reflect a lot of the questions that came out of the audience here, but there’s one that I want to read, actually read it, and it’s for Ambassador Crocker. I’ll make it the last question.
If you were to write a new version of the perfect storm memo, what would your central, main warning be to the new administration?
MR. CROCKER: It would be pretty much what it would have been with the previous administration, and again, I know this getting repetitive, but it’s important enough to repeat: Do not cast aside American global leadership without some very careful consideration of the consequences.
We’ve talked about that in the Middle Eastern context. Well, take a look at Europe: the rise of forces throughout Europe, basically, of extreme right-wing orientation. I’m, among other things, on the Broadcasting Board of Governors; we oversee Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, all official USG civilian media. We have restarted our Hungarian language service through Radio Free Europe out of concern of the way the current government seems to be controlling individual liberties and press liberties. And you may have seen the stories over the last couple of days how they are shutting down their own media now. Why is this important? Because horrific things have come out of Europe in the 20th century: two world wars and the Holocaust. And World War II and the Holocaust are still in living memory. Do we really think that can never – that kind of thing can never happen again, that we have reached the end of history? And Frank Fukuyama wishes to hell he’d never written that book – (laughter) – and has been honest enough to say so. (Laughter.) So yes, our post World War II effort was directly at containment of the Soviets, but a subtext was European unity, not just against the Soviet Union but European unity under U.S. leadership to structurally start to develop the institutions and the orientations that would make a return to that kind of conflict and genocides impossible. Well, we can see now how possible that might get. So it isn’t just the Middle East. It isn’t just the Middle East and Europe. By abdicating in East Asia, well, the Chinese are building new islands every day, which they’re using now for air and sea basing.
So again, my message would not be on the Middle East except by example; it would be on the world. What kind of world do we want to see and what are its implications for us?
MR. MATTAIR: I just want to say that within a day or so, the video of this conference will be on our website, which is www.MEPC.org. And then this transcript will be in the next issue of the journal, which will be the Winter 2018 journal, which will be out probably after Christmas.
And having said that, I want to thank the panel very much for a great discussion, in my view. (Applause.)
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon
Diplomat-in-Residence, Princeton University
Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Weekly Columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and The National (UAE)
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
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 www.mepc.org 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.