From Medina to Istanbul: Curves in the Saudi-Turkish Relations

            The Turkish foreign policy toward the „Eastern world” – which means basically the Muslim countries in the Middle and Near East – is not as intensive as it was before 1923. Or at least this is the typical view the so called literature usually suggests. And it is surely true from a given perspective, but in many cases út is not. Because it is more than obvious that there is no nation or cultural heritage that can be driven out in a couple of years from the circumstances it has been living for centuries. Therefore Turks are also not exceptions. Islam and the great Turkic ancestors, who conquered half of the world and built a world power is still a living cultural heritage in Turkey. It is true that after 1923 the importance of the former one was drastically decreased, but the latter one as a national phenomena was encouraged in every level of the state from the education to the armed forces. In addition, as religion gained power again in the beginning of the 1950’s in high level politics, the Turkish-Arab relations became more and more important. There are reports, according to which Turkish decision makers were apprehensive, because of the Western oriented foreign policy and worried for the Arab reactions. This was the decade when within the society the formerly banned religious literature started to become widespread. The so called Nurcu movement lead by Said Nursi (1878–1960) – together with Eşref Edip Fergan (1882–1971) and Necip Fazıl Kısakürek (1904–1983) occurred in those years.

By the time when the conservative Necmettin Erbakan became Prime Minister (1995), his first official political tour started in the Middle East. And as Turkey was a NATO member since 1952, the Maghreb countries were suspicious toward the honesty of Ankara (Mu‘ammar al-Qaddāfī embarrassed Erbakan so much that the voters did forget it and punished him in the next elections).

            What we try to emphasize is that by 2002, when AKP came into the power, the high level Turkish politicians did want to have different – much better – relations with the Arab world than they have had before. But to have better economic, cultural and political relations did not mean that Turkey ever wanted to give up its membership in Western alliance. Even more, Ankara vindicated the role of the strongest and most influential actor in the region. Consequently, the AKP government also demanded to be as an exemaple to be followed and create an image according to which Sunni Islam and democratic state is not a dream any more. In this connection, a continuity can be noticed between Atatürk’s heritage and the present aims of the AKP government. The former one based on the importance of the sovereignty and progress, the present one underlines the democracy and the Islam hand in hand.


Fahreddin Paşa and the Armenians

Regarding the bilateral relations, until 2017, Riyadh and Ankara have signed several agreements and cooperated in different fields. In 2006 King ‘Abd Allah visited Turkey and signed 6 agreements with his counterpart. In 2013 military cooperation started, while 2 years later when Erdoğan visited Riyadh, the sides agreed on further strategic cooperation. In 2016 Salmān ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz had an official meeting in Turkey, after which the foreign ministers met. Also worth to mention that by 2008, Turkey became the first non-Arab partner who gained the strategic partner status from the GCC countries (UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia).

            With regards to our topic, the shifts among the alliance systems with the Arab world Turkey built recently, some changes are obvious. The Middle East Eye stated that in a secret report landed in the Emirates, the Saudi Crown Prince Muḥammad bin Salmān spoke about a ’strategic plan’ against Erdoğan’s Turkey. “The kingdom would start to target the Turkish economy and press towards the gradual termination of Saudi investments in Turkey, the gradual decrease of Saudi tourists visiting Turkey, while creating alternative destinations for them, decreasing Saudi import of Turkish goods, and most importantly minimizing the Turkish regional role in Islamic matters,” – says the source.

            As a symbolic part of this process, Ankara was not invited to the forum, to the so called Organization of Islamic Cooperation held in Medina in the end of May, 2019. Nevertheless, those who observed the bilateral relations before were not surprised. The report officially was written on 24 May, 2019. But just in the first days of May, a long article was written, published by the Anadolu Agency (AA), that blamed Saudi Arabia because for its vitriolic press attacks against Turkey. According to AA’s article, Ukaz newspaper for example, stated that recently 1006 Saudi citizens got lost in Turkey. In the country there are attacks against Arab tourists – claimed the newspaper. As a result of that, in the period of January-February, 2019, the number of tourists coming from Saudi Arabistan decreased dramatically and only around 41 thousand visited Turkey, which is a recession of about 38%.

            In addition, the Arab newspaper also reminded its readers that during the World War I, Ottoman troops not just murdered 1,5 million Armenians, but also claimed that the last commander of Medina, Fahreddin Paşa[1], who is considered in the Turkish literature as the ‘Tiger of Medina’ or the ‘Tiger of the Desert’, deported several inhabitants of the city and stole many holy objects, which later were kept in Istanbul. This claim was not the first one. The foreign minister of UAE, ‘Abd Allah ibn Zāyid dedicated the following question to the world in 2017: “Did you know that Fahrettin Paşa stole the property and hand written works of people living in Medina? That is how Erdoğan’s ancestors behaved to the Arabs”

Later on, the press of UAE and Saudi Arabia finally revealed the verdict: Ottomanism and the Ihvan got “muta nikâhı, a marriage that has common goals and a specified term.


Anadolu Agency underlined also that Saudi press blamed Turkey, and by that created the ‘diabolical triangle’: Turkey, Iran and Qatar. But what happened behind the curtains, which caused these desperate press attacks against Turkey? According to the Turkish news agency, there are three main pillar. First of all, after the killing of Ğamāl Hāšoqğī in Istanbul in the autumn of 2018, Erdoğan demanded a detailed investigation. Secondly, Turkey openly supports the İhvan (Muslim Brotherhood), which is also problematic from Riyadh’s point of view. And last but not least – and maybe this is the most painful for Saudi Kingdom – Ankara together with many European powers and against the American claims, does not tend to isolate Iran and accept the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as terrorist organization. So between the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey the tension is growing, however, especially Ankara tries to avoid the direct conflict, in several politically uncertain regions, yet the disagreements are obvious. In addition, Turkey also realized the decreasing influence of the USA on the region (see the case of S-400) and probably wants to avoid to be the looser of the party.


The ’murderer of the Middle East’ vs. Erdoğan?

There are several places all around the Islamic world, where the interests of the mentioned leading powers of the GCC totally differ from the path that Ankara follows. Firstly, since 2014 Abū Zabī and Riyadh gave financial support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is at least according to Turkey, a kind of terror organization lead by YGP, the Syrian extension of Kurdish PKK. In addition, while UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus after 7 years, Turkey has not moved yet. Just the opposite, after several military interventions, Erdoğan is planning to send more soldiers to the East Bank of the Euphrates. And this step shows also that for AKP it became important to have some successes in the foreign policy in order to avoid bigger losses than the loss of Istanbul in the domestic affairs.

The question of Ihvan, which was described as a „cultural war” by the Crown Prince of Abū Zabī and the deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, Muḥammad ibn Zāyid, is also a crucial point. After the coup d’état in Egypt, as we, Amaraia have already pointed out, Turkey offered shelter for many members of the Ihvan. In a wider concept it is more than obvious that every political movement, which tries to involve as many people as possible in Saudi Arabia and the UAE can be a danger for the leadership and family of the kingdoms. Because – and this is a great difference – the Turkish President can be blamed as a dictator as well, but still he can go outside to the street even in Antalya, and nothing will happen to him. And Erdoğan is aware of that also. That is the reason, why he usually politically exploit the crowd of voters and forms an image that shows him as the leader of ‘true Muslims’ all over the world.

            Another sensitive place where the Turkish and Gulf interests are obviously different is Libya. In the North African country there is a huge international competition for the worthy oil fields and harbors. On the one hand there is Fāyiz as-Sarrāğ, the leader of the Government of National Accord (GNA) supported by Ankara and partially by the international community as well, especially by Italy. Erdoğan himself agreed to meet as-Sarrāğ officially in Istanbul in the beginning of July. On the other hand, there is General Ḥaftar, who managed to capture strategic parts of the country and got financial and political support from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. From Turkish point of view Libya was a place, where billions of US dollars has already been invested before 2011 as well. In addition these infrastructural investments (hospitals, hotels, air bases, etc.) can now be increased by having strong connections with the Libyan defense sector. Moreover, after Sudan, Qatar and Somalia, maybe an additional Turkish military base also can be an achievement for Ankara – said Bülent Aras, the academic advisor of Ahmet Davutoğlu, former Turkish foreign minister. He also claims – and this evaluation can be the key point for our present topic – that as Turkey does not trust its regional allies like UAE or Saudi-Arabia, therefore turns to build up, or at least strengthen some other fruitful connections in the Muslim world.

            Aras’s view is not the only one. Ömer Fatih Özkan, research fellow, expert of Libya said that the war in the North African country is basically a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey, which controversially does not affect the economic relations.

Based on some information provided by David Hearst, the writer of the Middle East Eye, in the end of 2018 the representatives of intelligence services of Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia came together with Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad. The aim of the meeting was to restrict the Turkish positions in the region. According to the same source, a common strategy was decided upon. First of all, each participant agreed on support the Sunni forces in Iraq and block the relations between Erbil and Ankara. Within this framework, a special support for YPG was also accepted, which means that the mentioned countries started to join their policies toward the Syrian government. From this perspective, the reopening of the UAE embassy in Damascus is much more understandable. Not to mention, that Bahrein, who generally also on the same track with Riyadh in the foreign policy, also opened its embassy in Syria. The same source underlined also that Riyadh sent approximately $100 billion support to those territories in Syria, where the control is in the hands of the Kurdish armed forces, YPG.

Regarding the UAE-Turkish relations, there are views according to which Abū Zabī has been planning a kind of coup d’état against Turkey since the fall of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This eventuality is more than interesting, especially if we take the economic relations into consideration. Because UAE – with the amount of $4,6 billion – is the most important destination for the Turkish export in the Middle East. In addition, the Turkish companies have all together $7 billion income by being successful mainly in the construction sector of UAE. 

Also worths mentioning that not just UAE worked against the Muslim Brotherhood effectively in Egypt, but Saudi Arabia as well. Before as-Sīsī came into the power, according to some rumours he got approximately $5 billion support from the Saudi family. 

            In connection with all the plans against Turkey, we have to mention a name – Mohammed Dahlam  Muḥammad Daḥlān Nincs mögötte link! – who can be the practical key figure. Because he was probably the person, to whom the two agents with UAE papers were arrested in Istanbul belonged to. Daḥlān, also known as “the murderer of the Middle East”, or “Muḥammad ibn Zāyid’s pitbull”, has Palestinian (Gaza) origin and has organized several assassinations in the past decades. He was the head of security for Yāsir ‘Arafāt and later on, after the years when he was hiding in Serbia and Montenegro, he got Serbian citizenship. Sinem Köseoğlu, the columnist of the conservative Gerçek Hayat wrote before the coup d’état attempt in 2016 that Muḥammad Daḥlān can be the person, who can try to provoke a coup in Turkey. According to Köseoğlu, Daḥlān got the approval from Moscow and Tehran as well, or at least he was not opposed. So, if we take Köseoğlu’s article seriously, we can see that there was a rift between partners.


What can happen on the Damascene Road?

As the hostility between UAE, the Saudi Kingdom (plus Egypt) and Turkey culminated in the past years, Ankara is tending to build ‘other bridges’ within the Arab world. Meanwhile she does not want to loose the investors coming from Gulf countries and the markets, which are potential buyers of the Turkish products. However, the steps in Libya, in Syria, or in Sudan, where Erdoğan tries to have different strategic positions, not necessarily reach their goal. Because – as it looks like now and as the examples provided by history showed – for Turkey cooperation is not enough in every case; especially if domination is also part of the game. Within this framework, the Syrian crisis together with the reactions of the Muslim world for the ’deal of the century” provided by Americans can be a turning point in the near future. But one thing is clear: Turkey wants to have as many cards in its hand as possible and however it is unbelievable at the moment, one day Turkey can be St. Paul, leaving the past behind on the Damascene Road…



[1] Ömer Fahreddin Türkkan (1868–1948): Turkish commander, diplomat. His family originated from the Balkans, Fahreddin was born in the present territory of Bulgaria (Ruse), but later on the whole family had to move to the present territory of Turkey because of the Russian-Ottoman war in 1878. He got his education in different military schools. In 1916 he became the commander of the 4. Army and fought against British and Arab troops in Medina until 1919, when the British forces managed to enter the holy city. Fahreddin Paşa was deported to Malta. 2 years later he connected the government of Mustafa Paşa in Ankara. Became the member of TBMM and was appointed as Turkish ambassador to Afghanistan where he worked until 1926. During his duty, he helped the anti-Bolshevik uprisings in Central Asia. After returning to Turkey as major-general, he continued to serve the Turkish Military Forces until 1936, when he retired.