Skip to main content

Saudi Arabia and Turkey Falter Over Egypt

Though Saudi Arabia and Turkey share strategic goals in the region, the Egyptian coup is testing the strength of the two countries' relations. 
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah (L), Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (C) and Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa are seen after the official photo taking session of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in Mecca August 14, 2012.   REUTERS/Hassan Ali   (SAUDI ARABIA - Tags: POLITICS ROYALS) - RTR36UJ4

After a lengthy historical impasse, common strategic, regional and economic interests brought about an unusual partnership between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Relations were strengthening under the pressure of the Arab uprisings, in which both countries were destined to coordinate their support for the Syrian rebels and counterbalance Iran’s expansion in the region. Yet, in the wake of the Egyptian coup, this partnership appears to be strained as the two countries’ visions collided over the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

The Turkish leadership made clear its objections to deposing an Islamist leader with whom it had close ideological affinities. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the UN Security Council to meet after the massacre of Egyptian protesters, and reprimanded Europe for remaining silent. In July, it was reported that he was puzzled by Saudi backing of the coup and rhetorically asked Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, “How could a country claiming to uphold Islam and Sharia support the overthrow of an elected Islamist president who came to power after fair elections?”

The Turkish leadership appealed to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) chief Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, to condemn the coup. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag reprimanded Ihsanoglu over the organization’s inaction following the Egyptian army’s heavy crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters. Bozdag called on the OIC chief to resign for “dishonorable passivity.”

After this most recent episode, it seems that Erdogan will not be endearing Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal again as he did when the UN General Assembly voted to grant Palestine the status of non-member observer state in 2012. Yet, it is not clear whether this current impasse will have long-lasting negative consequences for cooperation between the two countries. Saudi Arabia needs Turkey in Syria, while Turkey remains eager to attract more Saudi investment, estimated at more than $1.9 billion.

Since June 30, Turkish pro-government media excelled in reporting on Saudi and Gulf support for the coup, calling it the “collaborators’ evil alliance,” with sensational stories circulating in the press about an alleged statement by Dubai Sheikh Maktoum’s daughter, Mahra, in which she stated, “The massacre in Egypt is done by our money.” The Turkish press' criticism of the Saudi position in Egypt — this time originating with pro-Turkish government sources — replicated what had already been noticeable in the secular or independent press. Turkey is one country in the region where Islamists, secularists, leftists and liberals all concur on a negative image of Saudi Arabia, with each doubting its policies. Perhaps this is only replicated in post-revolution Tunisia. While Saudi Arabia has succeeded in creating loyal constituencies in many countries, somehow it has failed to endear itself to others, including Turkey.

On the Saudi side, while the Turkish-Saudi partnership is officially celebrated as a great new strategic alliance, the Saudi press occasionally launches attacks that undermine this veneer of cooperation. Accusations that “Sultan Erdogan” longs for the return of the Ottoman caliphate regularly appeared in the Saudi sponsored pan-Arab press. Such attacks are often backed by appeals to Arabism and the historical animosity between Turkey and the Arab people.

More ferocious attacks are clothed in religion, with Turkey’s Islamism mocked as an aberration that remains tolerant of alcohol consumption and debauchery in the red light districts of Istanbul. Turkey’s Sufi tradition stands at the opposite end of the dominant Saudi Salafist religious outlook. Its half-hearted appeal to Sharia is contrasted with Saudi commitment to Islamic law. Such attacks echo similar ones that flourished more than a hundred years ago when Wahhabi expansion in Arabia and constant harassment of pilgrimages prompted the Ottoman sultan to reassert his authority over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Ironically, in 1818 he relied on the Egyptian army under the leadership of Ibrahim Pasha to rid him of this menace and deliver the Saudi rulers and their religious aides to Istanbul where they were executed. While this is history, the memory seems to linger in the minds of religiously-inclined Saudis when they denounce Turkey's version of Islam for its laxity.

When the Arab uprisings broke out, the Saudi press dismissed any prospect for importing the so-called Turkish model, which combines moderate Islamism with democracy and economic prosperity. Such an import was difficult since it collides with structural differences between most Arab countries and Turkey. A long time ago, Arab countries had lost the Turkish cosmopolitanism that came with empire. They also lacked the constitutionalism of the Turkish state, and their Islamists differed considerably from those that emerged in Turkey. The Saudis felt threatened by simply invoking it as a future development that would no doubt expose their own model. When you take oil out of the equation, it is unlikely to find a sensible country that would aspire to a Saudi model of governance.

More recently, a Saudi journalist wrote a scathing article for al-Riyadh newspaper on the Muslim Brotherhood and the so-called “Erdoganism” which prompted the Turkish ambassador in Riyadh, Ahmad Gun, to send a reply, also published in the same newspaper. He stated that the article was aggressive and unfair. He praised the close cooperation between the two states, and clarified the positive heritage of the Ottoman Empire. This common Ottoman heritage belongs to all Muslims, according to the ambassador. A civil democratic state in Egypt drawing its legitimacy from constitutionalism is what Turkey wishes for Egyptians, he wrote.

Low intensity media warfare is likely to continue between Saudi Arabia and Turkey while the two leaderships struggle to keep the veneer of partnership. They may appear as strange bedfellows, but in politics, sleeping with the enemy is too common. Both countries need each other in hot spots further away from Egypt, mainly in Syria where more than three years after the outbreak of its revolution, there seems to be no end to the mayhem. Turkey will be more than happy for the Saudis to pay the bill while it deals with the more complicated logistics. As Saudi Arabia desperately awaits victory in Syria to add to its recent one in Egypt, it may well tolerate Turkish press ramblings.

If the current rift over Egypt continues to linger between the two countries, it will impede cooperation and prolong the disaster in Syria. Turkey and Saudi Arabia may back different horses, but at the end, neither country will be able to create replicas in their own image or loyal forces on the ground. In an age of shifting political alliances, people’s power and changing Arab publics, a lesson has been learned. Arabs, political parties and activists have defied any prediction and will likely continue to do so in the foreseeable future.   

Madawi Al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalization, religious trans-nationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Gulf Briefing Gulf Briefing

Gulf Briefing

Top GCC stories in your inbox each week

Trend Reports

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (4th R) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (3rd L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on February 22, 2019. (Photo by HOW HWEE YOUNG / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images)

From roads to routers: The future of China-Middle East connectivity

A general view shows the solar plant in Uyayna, north of Riyadh, on March 29, 2018. - On March 27, Saudi announced a deal with Japan's SoftBank to build the world's biggest solar plant. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

Regulations on Middle East renewable energy industry starting to take shape

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial