Turkey Pulse

Turkish-Arab ties marked by fear and loathing

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Article Summary
A senior Turkish diplomat says Ankara misread the Middle East and ended up relying on Iran and its backer Russia, the two countries that Arab regimes fear the most.

United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash, whose country has had more than one run-in with Turkey in recent times, summed up the situation in a tweet on March 10. "It is no secret that Arab-Turkish relations aren't in their best state," Gargash said.

Gargash also called on Ankara to “deal wisely and rationally with its neighbors by taking into account Arab sovereignty.”

The timing of his remark suggests that he had Turkey’s Olive Branch operation against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria in his sights. He may have also been referring to reports that Ankara is preparing a similar operation against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.

Many believe Gargash was not just speaking for the UAE when expressing concerns about Turkey’s actions in the region. His tweet came a few days after Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was quoted by the Egyptian press saying that Turkey belongs to an “axis of evil” in the Middle East, whose other members are Iran and “extremist religious groups.” 

The prince reportedly uttered his remark during his visit to Cairo last week, when he met with Egyptian newspaper editors.

The “extremist groups” the crown prince is said to have referred to are clearly the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) feel a close affinity to.

The Saudi Embassy in Ankara, probably under diplomatic pressure from the Turkish side — which chose not to respond officially to the prince — issued what for many Turkish commentators was a less-than-convincing denial.

The embassy said the prince’s remarks were “falsely reported,” saying he had not mentioned Turkey but had referred “to the so-called Muslim Brotherhood and radical groups.”

There was, however, no such denial from the Saudi Embassy in Cairo, or from Riyadh. Tehran, on the other hand, accepted the prince’s words as having been uttered and dismissed them as “childish.”

Meanwhile, the pro-government media in Turkey wasted no time in attacking Saudi Arabia. Selim Atalay, a veteran journalist who writes for Star daily, accused Crown Prince Mohammed of being out of touch with reality.

“For there to be an axis, the three angles of the triangle have to be in harmony. The prince clearly has not thought much about which topics Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkey are in agreement over,” Atalay wrote.

He was referring to the differences between Ankara and Tehran over regional disputes and the antipathy felt for the Brotherhood in Iran.

“If one is to seek a geometry of evil in the Middle East, one has to start with Saudi Arabia, and include the UAE, Egypt and Israel in it,” Atalay said.

Predominantly Sunni Turkey and predominantly Shiite Iran remain rivals in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where Tehran backs the regime, and has called on Ankara to halt its operation against the YPG in Afrin.

During an address in Bahrain in February 2017, Erdogan blasted what he referred to as “Persian nationalism,” and called on Iran’s expansionist aims in the Middle East to be halted.

Nevertheless, being Islamic and Sunni, and having shared concerns over Tehran’s regional ambitions, has proved to be insufficient for establishing the relationship Erdogan and the AKP hoped to have with Sunni Arab regimes.

Retired Turkish Ambassador Suha Umar, whose postings included Amman, told Al-Monitor the AKP government had failed to read the historic allergy the Arab world had for 600 years of Ottoman rule in the region.

Erdogan responded angrily in December after UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan shared a Twitter post accusing Fakhreddin Pasha, the Ottoman commander during the siege of Medina in 1916, of stealing Islamic manuscripts and artifacts and removing them to Istanbul.

“These are Erdogan’s ancestors and their history with Arab Muslims,” the post said.

Erdogan did not hold back in his response to Nahyan. “While my ancestors were busy defending Medina, you impudent man, what were your ancestors doing?” he retorted angrily, clearly referring to the British-instigated Arab Revolt against the Muslim Ottomans during World War I.

Umar said Ankara’s strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood also stoked one of the greatest fears of Arab regimes. Turkey considers the Brotherhood to be a legitimate political movement, while Riyadh, along with Egypt, has gone so far as to label it a terrorist organization. 

Meanwhile, Ankara and Cairo remain at odds following the coup in Egypt in 2013 that ended the brief rule of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood-based government of President Mohammed Morsi. Ties between Egypt and Turkey are still frosty.

Ankara’s unconditional military and political support for Qatar, which is currently under blockade by a Saudi-led Gulf coalition, is another point of serious disagreement between Ankara and Riyadh.

Riyadh is also suspicious of the cooperation between Turkey and Iran in Syria, within the context of the Russian-sponsored “Astana process,” even though Ankara and Tehran are at serious odds over the Syrian crises.

Turkey in turn was displeased when Saudi Arabia sent a low-level representative to the extraordinary summit of Islamic leaders in Istanbul, called by Erdogan in December to discuss Jerusalem.

Ankara was also annoyed over the recent decision by the Saudi-owned MBC Group to drop all Turkish television serials and programs, which are highly popular across the Middle East. Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Numan Kurtulmus told Al Jazeera this was a “political move” and “clear censorship.”

Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in northern Syria, on the other hand, was also received frostily in the Arab world, with the one notable exception being Qatar, which is dependent on Turkish support when it comes to the conflict with Saudi Arabia.

The disquiet felt by Arab countries over the operation was openly voiced by Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit at the Munich Security Conference in February. During a panel discussion attended by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Gheit warned Turkey to be careful “when intervening in an Arab country south of your borders.”

Responding to Gheit, Cavusoglu said Turkey was using its legitimate right to combat terrorism in Syria, and criticized the Arab League for its inability to prevent the Syrian regime from killing half a million people. “This is your system,” a visibly irritated Cavusoglu retorted, clearly trying to demean the Arab League.

Ibrahim Karagul, the firebrand editor-in-chief of the pro-government Islamist daily Yeni Safak, sees a conspiracy against Turkey by an “axis” in the Middle East set up by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States.

“This was established to stop Turkey; in order to make the Afrin operation fail, and achieve the multi-nation project to encircle our country,” Karagul said. 

Meanwhile, Turkey still has an uneasy relationship with Iraq, which still insists that Turkish forces in the Bashiqa camp near Mosul be withdrawn.

Turkey and Jordan, on the other hand, continue to maintain the appearance of good relations. Many remember, however, that Jordanian King Abdullah II reportedly accused Turkey of seeking “radical Islamic solutions” to Middle East crises during a meeting with senior members of Congress in Washington in January 2016. Umar said Turkey’s relations with the Arab world today are in turmoil because Ankara totally misread the situation in the Middle East, especially after 2004.

“Prior to that our policy was based on not interfering in the domestic affairs of Arab countries, trying to contribute to Middle East peace, and promoting our economic interests,” Umar said.

“The AKP, however, changed this completely by starting not just to interfere in the affairs of Arab countries, but also to try to organize these countries according to its own vision,” Umar added.

All that is left for Turkey today, according to Umar, is to try to work with Iran and Russia so Turkey can get its way in the Middle East; however, Iran and Russia are the two countries whose motives Arab regimes fear the most. The result of this is likely to be more strains in Turkish-Arab ties.

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Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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