Regional polarization and Turkey’s Gulf policy

In the midst of the Saudi-Iranian polarization, that is promoted by many to stir up new troubles in the Middle East, Turkey seeks to pursue a balancing policy

In recent months, the wheels of politics have been turning with considerable pace in the Gulf. Things had begun unfolding rapidly since U.S. President Donald Trump’s May 2017 visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Trump effect, in other words, further aggravated the level of polarization in the region. Washington’s nod to the ambitions of crown princes in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia slowly turns the Saudi-Iranian rivalry into a hot conflict. The growing polarization, which had been kicked off by the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s politics of influence and covert military operations, found a new leader among the Wahhabi-Salafi crowd with the rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS). As such, MbS furthered his active policy in Yemen by orchestrating the blockade of Qatar, the ouster of Muhammad bin Nayef, the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a crackdown on rival princes within the Saudi royal family. His statements on moderate Islam, which were intended to blame the rise of extremism in the Middle East on Iran, could be added to the list.

The Saudi crown prince has been trying to form a coalition tasked with containing Iran’s influence in places like Yemen, Lebanon and Palestine. As such, the Qatar blockade was intended to send a message to other Gulf countries that could potentially challenge that agenda. At the same time, MbS laid the groundwork for Riyadh’s cooperation with Israel, which was recently endorsed by the Saudi grand mufti, who said that it was not permissible to fight against Israel, identified Hamas as a terrorist organization and issued a fatwa to declare that cooperating with the Israeli military against Hamas was permissible. To be clear, it should not come as a huge surprise to anybody that Salafism, an apolitical movement that promotes obedience to rulers under any circumstances, would endorse fighting with Israel. The same people could, with equal ease, legitimize a type of moderate Islam flavored secular Arab nationalism. In the name of staying away from politics, the Salafi authorities might endorse all kinds of political maneuvering by the Saudi king.

Just as Washington’s hegemony over Saudi Arabia could be considered a good thing for decades, so too is an alliance with Israel against Iran being incorporated into the Wahhabi religious discourse. At a time when U.S. intelligence agencies talk about alleged links between the Revolutionary Guards and al-Qaeda, plenty of material has been collected to ensure that all Sunni/Shia radical movements can be seen in relation to Iran. Again, the removal of Hamas from power will create an environment where all Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, will be forced to cooperate with Iran. Unfortunately, there is no axis to counter-balance the Saudi-Iranian polarization that concentrates on the Gulf yet affects a large part of the world from Pakistan to Morocco. Again, the ouster of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi in 2013 had prevented such an axis from emerging. In Turkey, a number of developments – from the 2013 Gezi revolts to the July 15 coup attempt – were intended to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stop that country from serving as a counterweight.

Today, Turkey lacks the capacity to overcome the Saudi-Iranian polarization by forming a new axis. Great powers, such as the United States and Russia, have no intention of stopping that polarization either. Quite the contrary, they want to score points off the conflicts. For a long time, Ankara simply wished to avoid the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The Turkish government tried to encourage various countries in the region to form a new order to cooperate more closely by criticizing Gulf countries indirectly and Iran, directly. However, Turkey offered active support to Qatar during the blockade to establish that it would not remain on the sidelines in the face of the approaching chaos. President Erdoğan’s decision to visit a Turkish military base in Qatar, where he traveled for the second time since the blockade, unsettled the Gulf countries. At the same time, it was no coincidence that he visited Kuwait, which has been treated poorly by Saudi Arabia due to its mediation efforts. One thing is clear: As a country that will be directly influenced by the new wave of chaos and conflict, Turkey will refuse to become part of the polarization. However, it will continue to offer a balancing support to those countries that have been put in a difficult position by Saudi-Iranian polarization to make sure that some neutral ground remains. In addition to Kuwait, the Turkish government will reach out to countries like Oman, Lebanon and Pakistan in the hope of working more closely with them on national defense alongside existing economic relations. No doubt Ankara’s balancing act will be considered a bulwark by ambitious crown princes in the Gulf region.

[Daily Sabah, 20 November 2017]

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