Turkey-Saudi rivalry keeping both from regional ambitions - analyst

The growing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Turkey has developed into a cold war that is undermining both countries’ ability to achieve their regional goals, a scholar told the online news outlet of Brandeis University.

Nader Habibi, Brandeis professor of Middle East economics, says the antagonism began with the Arab Spring, according to a report in Brandeis Now. 

“Turkey supported the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Habibi. “The leadership of Saudi Arabia is opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood. They see it as a threat to their own domestic stability. So that was a sort of an ideological reason for the tensions.”

In 2017, when a Saudi-led bloc cut ties with neighbouring Qatar, mainly for its support of the Brotherhood, Ankara supported Doha economically and militarily. Then, last year, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by assassins linked to the Saudi state at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. “Turkey played a major role in implicating Saudi Arabia in the murder,” said Habibi. 

Now, in Libya’s escalating war, Turkey supports the Tripoli-based government while Saudi Arabia and its allies back General Khalifa Haftar. Sudan is another hotspot, according to Habibi, especially since the ouster of Omar al-Bashir in April. 

“Turkey had signed a number of economic agreements with al-Bashir, including an important one for the development of Suakin island as a tourist destination on the Red Sea,” said Habibi. “But the new military leaders are receiving significant aid from Saudi Arabia and they are driving a hard bargain with Turkey, even putting some projects on hold.”

Habibi said this has marked a major policy shift for Turkey, which focused more on its relations to Europe and the United States, until Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power in 2003. 

“He wanted Turkey to be a regional power and influence both regional and domestic politics in the Arab world,” said Habibi. 

Yet now trade between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as the UAE, has declined, along with tourism and investment, according to Habibi, who warned that the Turkish economy could fall back into recession.

“The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Turkey will make it more difficult for both sides to achieve their regional goals,” said Habibi, as Riyadh blocks Ankara’s efforts to become a regional leader and Ankara blocks Riyadh’s attempts to reunite the Gulf states. 

“This divide will also weaken the bargaining position of both sides with Iran and other regional rivals,” he said.