Turkey and Saudi Arabia have had an uneasy relationship for years. They have disagreed over a range of regional issues, the most recent being the disappearance of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, who went missing after visiting the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul over two weeks ago. There are a number of missing details in this story, including why a Saudi citizen who lived in self-imposed exile in the United States would enter a Saudi Consulate merely to obtain a document for his upcoming marriage. The mystery has sparked a media firestorm and speculation that this incident could develop into a crisis between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and hurt relations between Riyadh and Washington. But broader geopolitical forces and shared interests will supersede any tensions arising from the Khashoggi case. Sure, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have reasons to distrust one another in the long term. But they also have reasons to cooperate, and allowing this incident to disrupt relations would be too risky for them and for the United States.
History of Competition
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have a history of competition with one another going all the way back to the beginning of the Saudi dynasty. Saudi Arabia was born out of opposition to the Ottoman Empire. Prior to its founding, there was no central, unifying political entity on the Arabian Peninsula. The coasts of the peninsula were largely controlled by the Ottomans, but the interior was a series of decentralized tribes. Saudi Arabia was established in 1744 through a partnership between the founder of the Saudi dynasty, Muhammad bin Saud, and the founder of the ultraconservative branch of Islam known as Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Their agreement granted the Saudis a religious foundation on which they could rest their political leadership, while al-Wahhab gained connections to a power source that could enforce his interpretation of what was at the time a reformist Islamic doctrine. This partnership created an entity that could challenge the Ottomans, one that went through two incarnations before becoming the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
The Ottomans were concerned less about the interior of the peninsula and more about the maritime routes through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, as well as the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. For hundreds of years, control of these two cities granted the Ottoman sultans legitimacy not just as rulers over a vast land but as the leaders of the Islamic faith. The Ottomans took any attempts to obstruct routes to these cities extremely seriously. But eventually, the Saudis captured them and gained the coveted status of custodian of the holy cities.
Now, Turkey wants to regain its position as the leader of the Middle East – and it’s trying to use Islam to do so. But this might be a tough sell for a secular nation-state like Turkey. If it wants to extend its reach beyond its borders, it must be able to appeal to non-Turkish members of the Islamic world. It has done so by presenting itself, over the past several years, as the leader of Sunni Muslims – a role Saudi Arabia also claims. This competition will strain relations between the two for years to come.
Tensions between the Saudis and the Turks also stem from Ankara’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist organization that Riyadh once embraced but now opposes. The Muslim Brotherhood’s promotion of citizen engagement in politics presents a challenge to the Saudi regime. Saudi Arabia is built on a sort of social contract whereby Saudi citizens stay out of politics and government affairs, and in exchange they are granted generous state benefits. The Saudis, therefore, are wary of the Muslim Brotherhood because it essentially advocates the type of political activity that could threaten the monarchy’s hold over the country.
For Turkey, cooperation with organizations that advocate political Islam does not pose such a risk. It sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a vessel through which it can achieve its strategic objectives by encouraging the formation of governments throughout the region that are ideologically aligned with Ankara and, if possible, dependent on Turkey for support. This is why Saudi Arabia is suspicious of Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Its suspicion grew following last year’s blockade of Qatar by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council. Turkey and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archrival, both stepped in to support Qatar and help it resist pressure from Riyadh. Qatar is a unique country in the Middle East. It is wealthy and has a small population. It therefore faces little internal opposition that would make groups like the Muslim Brotherhood a threat, since most Qataris benefit from the current system and have no reason to challenge it. This has enabled Qatar to pursue a more flexible foreign policy, which has included backing elements of the Muslim Brotherhood – a key driver in the GCC’s decision to boycott the country, in addition to its support for Hamas, an organization loosely affiliated with or at least inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The GCC also demanded that Qatar shut down the Turkish military base in Doha. Clearly, Saudi Arabia was concerned about having Turkish forces stationed on the Arabian Peninsula, especially as Turkey’s military presence in former Ottoman holdings such as the Horn of Africa along the Red Sea – an area that Riyadh considers part of its sphere of influence – continues to grow. But Saudi Arabia’s attempt to isolate Qatar has so far failed, as Qatar has grown closer to Turkey, likely seeing an increasing need for allies who can defend it if a Saudi incursion were to take place.
At the same time, neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia has any interest in substantially weakening the other. They need each other to contain an increasingly ambitious Iran, which is involved in the wars in Yemen (on the Saudi border) and Syria (on the Turkish border). Both countries are also facing more immediate threats. Turkey is seeing growing competition in the Eastern Mediterranean over natural gas exploration rights. And Saudi Arabia is trying to implement significant reforms without upsetting the balance between its political and religious establishments.
They therefore have little reason to escalate tensions or spark yet another crisis in the Middle East over the Khashoggi case. True, Turkish officials have leaked details of Riyadh’s alleged involvement in Khashoggi’s suspected death. Ankara has led the charge in pointing the finger at Riyadh over the journalist’s disappearance, despite the fact that Turkey itself has jailed a number of journalists and purged many of its dissenters since 2016. But Turkey has its own reasons to push back against the Saudis that have nothing to do with Riyadh itself. Ankara doesn’t want to appear weak and unable to protect people who have been critical of Riyadh, since this could also include members of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Turkey would benefit little from damaging relations with Saudi Arabia right now given its other challenges. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, therefore, discussed the matter with Saudi King Salman and set up a joint working group to investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance in an attempt to defuse the situation.
For its part, the U.S. hasn’t directly implicated the Saudis in the journalist’s disappearance, but it has suggested that sanctions could be imposed if the Saudis are found responsible. But such a move wouldn’t serve Washington’s interests. Riyadh is a long-standing ally of the U.S. The United States’ dependence on foreign oil may be decreasing, but it’s still a net oil importer, and Riyadh is one of its top suppliers. It also depends on Saudi Arabia to counterbalance Iran and limit its expansion.
As more sanctions on Iran are set to go into effect in early November, global oil supplies will decline. The U.S. has been pressing Saudi Arabia to increase its production, which it has done. But Washington is concerned that lower supplies will drive oil prices up and damage the U.S. economy. The U.S., therefore, needs the Saudis’ cooperation on this front.
Riyadh has said it would retaliate against sanctions, suggesting that it could hike oil prices in response. A columnist from Saudi-owned Al Arabiya even issued the highly dubious threat that Riyadh may move closer to Tehran if the U.S. were to apply sanctions. But Saudi Arabia is already in a tough spot at home – it couldn’t risk alienating one of its closest allies and adding more uncertainty to its already precarious political position.
One way the Saudis could defuse the situation is by admitting that Khashoggi died in the consulate but not under order of the regime itself. The theory that U.S. President Donald Trump floated in an interview on Monday – that “rogue assassins” were responsible for Khashoggi’s death – would fit this approach. It lets the Saudi regime off the hook by painting the affair as an accident, placing the blame on a small group of individuals, giving the U.S. an excuse to apply a softer approach to Riyadh.
The U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey all have an interest in de-escalating the situation. But the incident does reveal a painful truth about the stability of the kingdom today: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to contain the growing internal divide between moderates and traditionalists. As a critic of the kingdom, Khashoggi challenged the crown prince’s agenda. His disappearance has placed the U.S. and Turkey in an awkward spot, but their long-term interests will determine their actions from here.