Developments in Saudi Arabia have unsettled President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Although the Syrian crisis may have produced some common ground for Turkey and Saudi Arabia, disagreements between the two countries had already emerged in 2013, when Riyadh backed a coup against Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
Erdoğan and the AKP were not only angry about the toppling of Egypt’s Islamist government but also over the fact that Riyadh, along with Cairo, listed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
The diplomatic ostracizing and blockading of Qatar by a Saudi led-coalition of Arab states in June had also put Ankara and Riyadh at odds, after Erdoğan threw his weight behind Doha.
Nevertheless, Ankara did not let its feeling boil over, but instead tried to develop strategic ties with Riyadh after the death of King Abdullah in 2015, hoping this would also usher in a more moderate tone in Riyadh toward the Muslim Brotherhood.
A visit by the new King Salman bin Abdulaziz to Turkey in 2016 also raised hopes in this respect. Nurturing these hopes, Turkey even turned a blind eye – and still does – to what many say are Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
But the Middle East remains a slippery slope where expectations and reality are often in contradiction. The Saudi-led attempt to isolate and punish Qatar for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and the close ties it was developing with Iran, for example, caught Ankara totally unawares.
The same happened after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced his intention to move Saudi Arabia toward “moderate Islam,” which did not go down well with Erdoğan or his supporters, and subsequently unleashed his campaign aimed ostensibly at rooting out corruption in the kingdom.
Harsh criticism, sometimes bordering on vilification, is now creeping into the arguments on Saudi Arabia among AKP deputies, Islamist and pro-government commentators in the Turkish media.
Riyadh remains cautious about responding angrily to these, leaving it mostly to the UAE to do this. Nevertheless, Crown Prince Mohammed is no doubt noting the increase in anti-Saudi sentiments in Turkey; especially those fed by the belief that he has entered into an unholy alliance against Iran with the U.S. and Israel.
Iran’s increasing regional influence is a concern Ankara in fact shares with Riyadh. Its problem, however, is that it can’t afford to take on Iran at such a volatile moment in Syria. The two countries are, after all, part of a Russian-led trio that initiated the so-called “Astana process,” aimed at trying to settle the Syrian crisis.
All of this requires expert diplomacy on the part of Ankara in order to overcome the problems it is increasingly facing in the Middle East. This is even more important now when it is clear that Erdoğan and the AKP’s efforts to hammer out their Islamist vision for the region has landed Turkey in a series of dangerous political dead-ends.
Rather than guiding developments in the region, as it once hoped to, Turkey is being pulled into them by events beyond its control.
Turkish diplomacy before the AKP was predicated mostly on not getting involved in the region’s disputes, but instead remaining neutral from where it could offer its good offices in order to enhance regional stability when this was requested.
Seeing as Erdoğan and the AKP are presently in the process of rediscovering Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, they might benefit from also trying to understand how Turkey’s founding father managed the country’s relations with friends and foes alike, and gained international respect that continues to grow today.