Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and changing political groupings in Mideast

Written by  Published by:Shiite News
Published in Articles
Monday, 16 March 2015

King Salman is apparently attaching high importance to foreign policy of Saudi Arabia because the current versatility in the Middle East’s political sphere and the resultant security challenges have had no precedent since the end of the World War II. Under these conditions, even a small change in the policies of regional powers can have a profound effect on security and political trends in the region and may even lead to emergence and rise of new trends. As a result, following the ascension to the throne of King Salman and due to subsequent changes in the power structure of Saudi Arabia, active players in the Middle East as well as observers elsewhere expected changes in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and, at the same time, posed various questions in this regard.

Changes first started inside Saudi Arabia. Within a week after he came to power, King Salman issued 34 royal decrees. The extent of changes brought about by those decrees was unprecedented in contemporary history of Saudi Arabia in terms of speed and scope. Of course, it was habitual with Saudi kings to appoint those closest to them to key posts and power positions in a gradual manner. However, despite usual expectations, King Salman did not follow that gradual pattern. As a result of changes introduced by him, those close to Salman rapidly fortified their positions within the power structure of Saudi Arabia. These vast and speedy developments, gave rise to speculations about possible parallel changes in the country’s foreign policy. Assuming that the foreign policy is just an extension of domestic policies of a country, it would follow that expecting change in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy would be quite logical.

The most important change, whose signs have already appeared on the horizon, is an effort by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to get his country rid of foreign policy approaches that had caused serious problems for Saudi Arabia during recent years. Those approaches had practically caused Saudi Arabia to lose needed dynamism in reacting to developments under versatile conditions that prevailed in the region. In other words, one of the priorities of King Salman’s foreign policy was to do away with self-imposed limitations in the area of foreign relations. As a result, changing the type of Saudi Arabia’s interaction with the regional affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood was put on the agenda. The conflict between the interests of Riyadh and the Muslim Brotherhood started right after the beginning of the Arab Spring and was mostly the result of Riyadh’s concern about increasing power of the Muslim Brotherhood both within and in the surroundings of Saudi Arabia. Extended support lent by Saudi Arabia to the Egyptian army following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohamed Morsi; intensification of differences between Riyadh and Ankara, Tunisia and the Palestinian resistance movement of Hamas; and near-complete severance of ties with al-Islah party in Yemen were major highlights of Saudi Arabia’s approach to the Muslim Brotherhood following the outbreak of the Arab Spring. On the whole, Riyadh was at odds with all organizational branches of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region and decided to support those regional regimes that opposed the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, as compared to his predecessor, King Abdullah, Salman is more religious, more traditional and, on the whole, closer to the social realities of Saudi Arabia. In addition, it seems that previous rumors and speculations about his close relations with the Muslim Brotherhood have come true. The fact that he has let Tunisia’s Rashid al-Ghannushi to visit Saudi Arabia is a positive sign in this regard because the former Saudi king had twice rejected Ghannushi’s demand. Another signs was related to Saud al-Shuraim, one of the Imams of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, who had been banned from preaching because of his close relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, under the new king, he was allowed to restart preaching. The third sign proving a détente between Riyadh and the Muslim Brotherhood was restoration of the passport of the Saudi cleric, Salman al-Ouda, who had been previously stripped of his passport. Above all, a recent visit to Saudi Arabia by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the type of welcome given to him and private talks with him as compared to his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was the most important sign of this change in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy orientation.

Simultaneity of Saudi visits by Erdogan and Sisi gave rise to some questions because given the fastidiousness of Riyadh in arranging such diplomatic exchanges, this development could not be taken as haphazard. In fact, by planning these simultaneous visits, Riyadh was sending out the message that it will no longer limit its diplomatic and security priorities to Egypt and will engage in serious interactions with Turkey as well. In other words, Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Turkey is changing, but this change does not necessarily mean that Riyadh is changing its approach to Egypt. Nonetheless, Saudi officials are well aware that such interactions with Turkey cannot be desirable to Cairo. Of course, this is not actually a source of concern for Saudi Arabia because they know that Cairo under the rule of Sisi needs Riyadh more than any time before. Saudi officials are well aware that Egypt has currently no choice, but to maintain special relations with Saudi Arabia and this situation will continue, at least, in medium term. Now, it is turn for Egypt to be bound by security and diplomatic priorities of Saudi Arabia.

It is evident that Riyadh has changed its approach to Ankara. Saudis have apparently reached the conclusion that the optimal way for rivalry with the Islamic Republic of Iran and its influence in the Middle East is to get close to Erdogan’s Turkey. The positive attitude of King Salman toward the Muslim Brotherhood has been the key to restoration of relations between the two countries. Both countries have been losers of the Syrian war. In Iraq, they have been watching the rising power of the Islamic Republic and the war launched by the United States against the ISIS terrorist group. Moreover, when it comes to Hamas, Yemen and even Lebanon, they see themselves faced with the increasing power of Iran. In this way, short-term priorities of the two countries with regard to issues of the Middle East have made it easy to forecast a possible détente between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The only obstacle to such a détente was Riyadh’s animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been largely removed following the enthronement of King Salman.

The warm welcome given to Erdogan and private talks between Salman and Erdogan as opposed to the unceremonious return of Sisi to Cairo were all telltale signs which proved that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are working toward convergence on certain regional issues. According to available information, the two countries have emphasized continuation of support for the Syrian opposition. On the other hand, a plan is already in gear to train the Syrian opposition in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It was due to these developments and positons that the Syrian opposition groups announced following the meeting between Erdogan and Salman that they have turned down a truce plan offered by the United Nations’ special envoy so Syria, Staffan de Mistura. In other words, the Syrian opposition has been inspired with new hope as it sees a new prospect for Syria’s developments in the light of the assistance that it is receiving from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Of course, Syria has been recently more of interest to Turkey than Saudi Arabia. Therefore, we should expect some sort of exchange of cooperation between the two countries in this regard. Yemen is the most important place where Turkey and Saudi Arabia can exchange reciprocal cooperation. Of course, no accurate reports have been published in this regard yet, but Saudi Arabia has been apparently resuming its support for al-Islah party. This development, considering Turkey’s special relations with this party, can form a connecting link to bolster cooperation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in various fields.

On the whole, protecting Sisi’s Egypt is not on the top of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy priorities anymore. Getting closer to Turkey in a bid to deal with the new developments in Yemen as well as increasing support for the Syrian opposition are now the main components of new and emerging regional policy of Riyadh. The previous interaction between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in Syria lacked a farsighted and strategic approach to regional developments as a result of which the ISIS was born, which is now posing a major threat to the entire Middle East region. The same story is being repeated in Yemen as Saudi Arabia is lending its support to certain currents in this country. It should be noted that the different and sometimes conflicting approaches taken by Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the past has so far wreaked havoc on both Syria and Iraq. We must wait and see what developments will take shape in the Middle East region as a result of the new round of the two countries’ cooperation on regional issues. A look to the past will tell us that one cannot expect establishment of more stability and security in the region. Sisi’s Egypt cannot join the new alliance formed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the near future, but certainly, it will not oppose that alliance either.

Hassan Ahmadian

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