How a breakdown in relations with Turkey could lead to an MBS-Bibi bromance

The current saga regarding Khashoggi’s murder would prove to be the final straw in the Saudi-Turkish relations.

December 25, 2018 23:20
4 minute read.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

SAUDI ARABIA’S Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a graduation ceremony for the 95th batch of cadets from the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia earlier this week.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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After the unfortunate killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has relied on leaks and insinuations to pressure and damage Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s international standing. The tactics deployed by Erdogan have proven to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, leading MbS to lose any hope of restoring the already tense relations with Turkey. For MbS, Israel represents the ideal non-Arab state to integrate into his vision for the region.

Saudi Arabia had close relations with Erdogan since his coming to power. The Saudis positively viewed the ascendancy of Sunni Turkey in the Middle East as a balancing act against Shi’ite Iran. Also, the Saudis welcomed the Islamist orientation of the Turkish government, as it furthered their belief in the imminent rise of moderate Sunnis in the Middle East. However, this close relationship frayed as the threat of Iran grew in intensity due to the Obama administration’s accepting attitudes of Iranian dominance of the Gulf and other parts of the Middle East, and Turkey’s willingness to aid Iranian efforts to circumvent international sanctions.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia’s support of the 2013 coup in Egypt further damaged the relationship with Turkey. On the one hand, Turkey declared its unequivocal opposition to the coup, and, to this day, hosts hundreds of exiled members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Furthermore, several Turkey-based pro-Muslim Brotherhood channels launch consistent vicious attacks on the Saudi royal family for their support the coup. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia provided crucial economic assistance to the putschists.

The relationship reached another low point after Saudi Arabia and its allies imposed a blockade on Qatar in 2017. Turkey sided the Qatari regime and even sent troops to Qatar to safeguard against any potential internal or external regime change effort. Turkey shares with Qatar a desire in bringing political Islamists to power across the Middle East, but Saudi Arabia views the tiny emirate as a destabilizing factor across the region.

The current saga regarding Khashoggi’s murder would prove to be the final straw in the Saudi-Turkish relations. No matter how Erdogan and Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz attempt to portray the relationship as brotherly and strong; the damage has been done and their bilateral ties would not recover from this debacle in the near future.

MbS is well-secured in his position and will become the next king of Saudi Arabia after the passage of his father regardless of international pressure. From MbS’s perspective, the actions of Erdogan are a clear attempt to institute regime change in Saudi Arabia to re-open the door for Qatar and political Islamists in the Middle East. MbS is likely to never forget the damage that Erdogan has inflicted on his project and image, and a sense of vengeance is likely to endure well into the future, resulting in a tense relationship as long as the Turkish president is in power.

For MbS, who is aware of the tense history of the region, Israel has proved through its strong and decisive actions toward its opponents that it can be a reliable partner against one’s enemies. The survival of a tiny nation despite extreme levels of hostility by its giant neighbors has both led Arabs to admire and hate Israel at the same time. Being a pragmatic man himself, MbS admires the fighting spirit of the Jewish state and is actively looking for ways to harness that capability toward the advancement of his anti-Iranian and political Islam vision in the region.

Furthermore, there is a sense of admiration of the Jewish state as the only country in the Middle East that has a solid and consistent track record of defeating and standing up to its enemies, even if it means invading or militarily striking other neighboring states disregarding international condemnation. The recent bombings of Iranian positions in Syria and Israel’s swift victory in the Six Day War are clear examples.

Another aspect of the Israeli-Saudi developing bromance is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. Bibi has succeeded in changing his awful reputation that he developed in 1990s during his first stint as prime minister in the Arab capitals, where they viewed him as an unreliable, naïve, and dangerous extreme right-winger, to a credible, trustworthy statesman. In fact, Bibi enjoys tremendous levels of respect no other Israeli prime minister has ever experienced among the ruling regimes in the Arab world in the last 70 years.

Bibi’s tough stances toward Sunnis and Shi’ites and willingness to stand up to international pressure, particularly the United States during the Obama administration, has earned him the respect of MbS. The crown prince even appreciates Bibi’s steadfastness more than ever as he undergoes extreme levels of pressure himself from the United States and the international community for the killing of Khashoggi.

The admiration of Israel and its prime minister, a strong sense of vengeance toward Turkey and political Islam, and desire to neutralize the Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia are likely to motivate MbS to press forward even further and look for more ways to further develop closer relations with the Jewish state.

The writer is a PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University. He was a former Glazer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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