Saudi crown prince’s moves and the tripartite Middle East
The storm of polarization in the Middle East looks far from an end. At this point, the various players are not even trying to hide their true intentions, which used to be kept to themselves or in private circles. At a time when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stopped airing Turkish television series, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud reportedly made anti-Turkey statements to a group of journalists in Egypt. According to reports, bin Salman described Turkey, Iran and Qatar as a “triangle of evil” and identified President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s supposed plan to bring back the Ottoman caliphate, along with Iran’s push to export the Islamic revolution and terrorist groups as the main threats facing the Arab people. To be clear, those statements are perfectly capable of further straining Turkish-Saudi relations. Therefore, the Saudi Embassy in Ankara immediately issued a statement rejecting the claims. The crown prince, that statement said, had referred to the Muslim Brotherhood and radical groups as opposed to Turkey.
It would appear that the Saudi crown prince lost control during a conversation in Cairo amid mounting anti-Turkey sentiments. The diplomatic implications of bin Salman’s words aside, it is no secret that the two greedy crown princes of the Gulf, bin Salman and the UAE’s Muhammad bin Zayed, are unhappy with Turkey’s regional policies. The most recent media reports merely revealed the ideologically charged language that is being used in Arab diplomatic circles to express that frustration.
The polarization between Iran and the Gulf and Israel is not the only force in the Middle East. There is a third bloc represented by Turkey that brings together players for cooperation.
Bin Salman seeks to impose a new blueprint on the Middle East and has been taking a series of steps. His main goal is to form a united front against Iran. Having secured the support of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and disciplined a large number of Saudi princes, the crown prince seeks to unite all Gulf states around the Saudi-Emirati-Israeli-Egyptian axis. Needless to say, the Qatar blockade was directly caused by Doha’s disagreement with that project.
At the same time, the two greedy crown princes have been blessed with a vast amount of support from Jewish lobbyists in Israel and the United States. As a matter of fact, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), America’s largest pro-Israel lobbying organization, came out in support of bin Salman and bin Zayed at its annual conference on March 4. The crown princes believe that Turkey, a key regional power, opposes their plans. For a while, they hoped that Turkey would just jump onto the anti-Iran bandwagon. But the Turkish government’s opposition to growing polarization in the Middle East and efforts to discipline countries like Qatar took a heavy toll on the crown princes’ agenda. Erdoğan’s vocal criticism of the Trump administration’s Jerusalem move and successful efforts to lobby the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the United Nations to pass critical resolutions put the governments of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt in a bad position concerning Arabs. Moreover, Ankara is not just exerting soft power in the Middle East due to Erdoğan’s strong leadership and television series. The country has been resorting to hard power instruments by launching operations in Syria, establishing a military base in Qatar and increasing its footprint on Suakin Island in Sudan. Those moves, coupled with Turkey’s refusal to fuel polarization and willingness to cooperate with Iran if and when necessary, drives the crown princes mad. As such, they view Ankara as a serious obstacle to their regional design. In addition to easing tensions between Iran and the Gulf, Turkey has been weakening tensions among Gulf countries. Furthermore, Ankara has been de-legitimizing efforts by certain governments to side with Israel in regional affairs.
It is no secret that those countries have been secretly supporting terrorist organizations such as the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) and PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) in an effort to undermine Turkey’s regional influence. To be clear, charging Erdoğan with trying to bring back the Ottoman caliphate is nothing but an attempt to isolate Ankara. The Saudi crown prince’s moves, however, are unlikely to produce the desired results. Crippled by domestic chaos, the Trump administration cannot form an effective anti-Iran bloc to contain Tehran. To make matters worse, the Gulf lacks the ideological and military capital to carry out that task. Meanwhile, the Gulf’s rapprochement with Israel will accomplish nothing except to serve Israeli interests in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. Nor will bashing Turkey behind closed doors help the crown princes get a grip on the realities of the Middle East.
The polarization between Iran and the Gulf and Israel is not the only force in the Middle East. There is a third bloc represented by Turkey that brings together players for cooperation. Failing to acknowledge that reality will not only strengthen Iran, but also result in the Gulf’s fragmentation.
This article was first published by Daily Sabah on March 14, 2018.