A Glance at Future Prospects of Turkish-Saudi Strategic Cooperation Council

Friday, January 15, 2016

Hossein Kebriaeezadeh
Expert on Middle East Issues

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister has mentioned a host of political, security, military, economic, trade, investment, energy, education, cultural and medical issues as major reasons behind establishment of a strategic cooperation council between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In doing so, he has implied that regional approaches and forming an Islamic coalition against terrorism are the main goals of the council.

Following execution of Saudi Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and Iran's sharp response to it, three members of the aforesaid coalition, that is, Sudan, Bahrain, and Djibouti cut their ties with Iran while Qatar and the United Arab Emirates downgraded their relations with Tehran. Egypt and Somalia also took sides with Saudi Arabia in what has been taken as a sign of Riyadh’s role in management of tensions against Tehran.

Apart from short- and long-term consequences of forming this council, strategic relations and high level of convergence require existence of common interests and common threats against countries in a coalition. The Syrian ground and economic requirements stemming from it have given birth to common interests between the two countries, namely Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but on this very ground and following engagement of Iran and Russia in Syria war, common threats have been also created against interests of these two actors. However, relative agreement reached later on the future of Syria among major global actors, caused these two countries to make efforts in order to magnify the threat of Iran and Russia in the Middle East in a bid to mobilize Sunni sources against their traditional rival.

The role of Iran as the factor keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power and disappointment of Ankara and Riyadh in the United States and the West due to their nuclear deal with Iran, led to a common understanding about emerging conditions of the region between these two actors.

This common understanding is similar to the period of transition, which had been already experienced in the Middle East during the 19th century when Britain reduced its direct presence in the region. However, this time, to continue its hegemony on the region, the United States is facing a major threat in the form of China and has been forced to shift strategic gravity center of its attention from the Middle East to the Far East. Under these conditions, the Middle East will be witness to creation of coalitions on the basis of self-help system. This change will allow stakeholder actors in the region to define a new strategic depth in order to create a hierarchical order in the region without any need to Washington’s presence in the Middle East.

In creating such an order, participation and strategic cooperation of other actors will play a determining part. In the meantime, in view of the definition of strategic cooperation as a relationship that is based on cooperation between two or more actors for the pursuit of high priority and vital goals, such consolidating factors as common norms, interactions and understanding, dynamism in relations, correct understanding of relations by the two sides, and realization of goals become relatively important.

In the light of these facts, although Turkey and Saudi Arabia belong to the Sunni part of the Muslim world and are respected by the Muslim world in this cultural sphere, the two countries’ societies and elites follow different political cultures and ideas, which strongly impact their attitudes and approaches in international system.

On the other hand, the pragmatic viewpoint of Turkey about regional developments is totally different from Saudi Arabia’s ideological viewpoint and this difference will be especially reflected in their attitudes and innate tensions between their goals and approaches. This difference has already showed itself between the two countries in their effort to take leadership of the Sunni world during the Arab Spring.

Political expectations of the two actors are also not similar, except in the case of Syria, especially taking into account that these two countries have limited diplomatic capacity to get their expectations close and manage them.

Regional goals pursued by the two countries are another reason for the failure of their strategic cooperation council. Following the rise of the Justice and Development Party to power, Turkey has been always dreaming of reviving the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire, which is not very much in line with the idea of Saudis for emerging as the leader of the Sunni world.

The history of developments in the Islamic world shows that Saudis do not approve of the heyday of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish caliphate, because they argue that the caliph must be an Arab and from Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)’s progeny. Therefore, Saudis believe that use of the word “caliphate” by the Ottoman Empire has been a heresy. Despite the passage of time, this viewpoint still weighs on the two countries’ relations. Under such conditions, it would be premature and too early to talk about strategic political and security cooperation between the two sides due to the aforesaid reasons and as a result of the extremist centripetal political approaches on both sides and their lack of belief in regional generalization.

However, conditions are totally different when it comes to technical and economic spheres due to mutual need of the two countries, especially the need to energy resources by Turks following imposition of sanction on Ankara by Russia. Therefore, their relations in these spheres can really remain sustainable and constructive.

Therefore, although establishment of a strategic cooperation council between Riyadh and Ankara can offer many opportunities for medical, cultural, economic and technological cooperation between the two sides, it cannot create a central core for convergence in the Sunni world under joint leadership of Riyadh and Ankara due to potential grounds for discord and low level of political convergence between the two countries.

Key WordsTurkey, Saudi Arabia, Strategic Cooperation Council, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, Iran, Syria, Russia, Strategic Gravity Center, Middle East, Self-Help System, Muslim world, US, Kebriaeezadeh

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*Photo Credit: Hurriyet Daily News