Saudi Arabia vs Iran: The view from Turkey, stuck in the middle

Observers suggest Turkey should not rush to support either side in this Middle East showdown.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends the opening session of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends the opening session of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ISTANBUL – Turkey should avoid picking sides in the current diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran, according to experts.
“I hope that Turkey doesn’t feel that it needs to rush in and take sides in this issue. It’s not in the interests of the region that everyone lines up on one side or the other,” said Stephen Kinzer, a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies and a former bureau chief for the New York Times in Istanbul.
Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia terminated diplomatic ties with its longtime rival Iran, which has a Shi'a majority, on Sunday following an attack by protestors on its embassy in Tehran. The protestors, who the Saudi foreign minister said were supported by the Iranian government, were angry at Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shi'a cleric and critic of the Kingdom Nimr Al-Nimr on Saturday.
“This certainly heralds a more acute period of confrontation between the two,” said Sinan Ülgen, former Turkish diplomat and chairman of The Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul.
Turkey, majority-Sunni, has relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, and has called for restraint from both sides. Ankara criticized Saudi Arabia for “political death penalties” without specifically mentioning Nimr, and said Iran must protect all diplomatic missions in its country, calling the attacks on the Saudi embassy “unacceptable.”
Ülgen told The Media Line that since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ensuing instability, “we have seen a rise in sectarian tension between Tehran and Riyadh.”
However, both Ülgen and Kinzer say that dismissing the conflict purely as religious sectarianism is overly simplistic.
“Sectarianism is being used as a façade, behind which Saudi Arabia and Iran are jousting for power in the Middle East,” Kinzer told The Media Line. “Basically these are the only remaining powers in the [region]. You’d like to think the Middle East is big enough for both of them, but it doesn’t seem that way.”
Saudi Arabia was also incensed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s statement following Nimr’s execution that the ruling al-Saud family would face a “harsh revenge.”
Kinzer says Riyadh must have expected such a response, and said the execution was a calculated move.
“I certainly don’t believe that the Saudis are surprised by the reaction,” he said. “[They] must feel confident in their ability to control the effects of what they’ve done.” 
Riyadh also pledged to end all air traffic and trade links with Tehran. The Kingdom’s allies Bahrain and Sudan, which are also Sunni-majority, cut ties with Iran as well, and the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait downgraded diplomatic relations.
Turkey, though relying on Iran for natural gas imports, has closer relations with Saudi Arabia, and has been recently accused of following a sectarian foreign policy, supporting Sunni groups in Syria and Iraq.
Ülgen thinks that’s not quite fair.
“There have been areas, particularly in Syria, where this more sectarian dimension has tended to dominate, but that doesn’t mean that Turkish foreign policy […] is driven solely by sectarian concerns,” he said.
Ülgen says there’s been a reassessment of foreign policy in Ankara over the past few months, which is why it’s taken a neutral role in the Saudi-Iran conflict. He says Turkey, with its secular government, is in a unique position in the region to act as a mediator.
Kinzer agrees, saying Turkey used to play this role in the past.
“There was a period earlier on in the [former prime minister and current president] Erdogan era when Turkey emphasized its ability to talk to various groups and wanted to maintain contact across all sorts of religious and ideological boundaries. This would be a great moment for Turkey to return to that principle,” he said.
Since Saudi King Salman came to power in January of last year, the kingdom has followed a much more interventionist foreign policy. Riyadh is leading an unsuccessful Arab coalition against Shi'a Houthi separatists in Yemen in a conflict that has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths. King Salman has also increased support for Sunni jihadist rebels in Syria.
“Looking back over the last year you could say that the change of regime in Saudi Arabia might have been an even bigger event than the rise of ISIS,” Kinzer said.
“An activist Saudi regime that’s now engaged in an open-ended war in Yemen, has stoked a huge diplomatic conflict in the Middle East, [and] is facing reduced oil revenues and potential domestic unhappiness over what’s just happened, introduces an element of instability in a country where stability has been a prized virtue for many years.”
Saudi Arabia, which has a 10 – 15 per cent Shi'a minority, has been following a more sectarian course since the mostly-Shia popular uprisings in its eastern province and ally Bahrain in 2011.
The Turkish government has controversially worked closer with Saudi Arabia since King Salman came to power, supporting many of the same rebels in Syria, joining a recent Saudi-led Sunni-dominated alliance “to fight terrorism,” and establishing a high-level joint strategic council with the Kingdom.
Ülgen says the Saudi-led alliance is meant to show Iran the Kingdom’s influence. He thinks Ankara’s decision to join was a mistake, “especially now that we see how divisive and dangerous the sectarian divide has become in the region.
“Turkey has to force itself to transcend these divisions because it’s the only one that can do it, and this is what the region needs,” he said.
Ülgen says that past interventions have fuelled sectarian fires in the region, and the damage will be difficult to repair.
“It’s not going to be easy for the international community to put the genie back into the bottle.”
Kinzer is no more optimistic, and says there’s no end in sight to the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which contributes to the already acute instability in the region.
“The only way the Middle East is going to be calmed down is if this sectarian hatred is reduced, and the only way the sectarian hatred can be reduced is through some understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now we’re going in the opposite direction.”