Those who follow closely Saudi and Turkish media these days will witness an intense “undeclared” war of words between the two countries, triggered initially by the change in Turkey’s policy of hostility towards Russia in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of July 2016, and subsequently carried forward with Turkey’s adoption of the role of “Champion” of the Islamic opposition against the US president’s decision to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Turkey’s stance and the escalation of its rhetoric in defence of Jerusalem; the hosting of an emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation; and its decision to open an embassy in East Jerusalem – in the midst of a luke-warm response by the Saudis- angered Saudi media, which launched an attack against the Turkish Premier, who they perceive as desiring to strip Saudi Arabia of its traditional role as leader of the Islamic World.
Although the Islamic summit in Istanbul was attended by only 17 Islamic leaders out of 53 Islamic countries, nonetheless, it clearly highlighted the existence of a Saudi-Turkish rivalry over the leadership of the Sunni Muslim community and the division of this community between supporters of Turkey’s leadership and those of Saudi Arabia’s leadership.
The absence of the king of Saudi Arabia and his crown prince from the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul provided President Erdogan with the opportunity to consolidate his position as a leader of Sunni Islam. And to affirm the strong Turkish presence, the Turkish Foreign Minister criticized what he considered as a weak Arab reaction to the US decision, and pointed to the fear by some Arab countries of angering Washington.
A wave of pro-Turkish anger against Saudi Arabia’s position swept across Arab social media sites, who blamed the Saudis for neglecting the Palestinian cause. Talk spread all over these sites of Israeli sources, such as Israel’s Channel 10, saying that Trump’s decision would not have been made without a Saudi-Egyptian green light, and about what Reuters revealed as Saudi pressure to force the Palestinians to accept a new US peace initiative that Trump plans to announce in 2018. These social media posts only served to heighten Saudi ire.
Saudi outrage was equally evident in newspaper articles written by journalists close to the Saudi inner decision-making circle, who attacked Mr. Erdogan for hosting the Iranian president at the summit, likening Israel to Iran. They see Iran as a greater threat to Sunni society than Israel, and in spite of that, Erdogan is hand in glove with the Iranians. Saudi journalists went on to say about Turkey that: there is little difference between Iran’s expansionist policies and Turkey’s ambitions to dominate the Arab and Gulf region, particularly by trying to sway Arab public opinion; and by making the leaders of the Gulf appear indifferent to the plight of the Islamic holy sites, who propagated twentieth century slogans which had been behind the disasters that befell the Palestinian cause.
Saudi media indignation reached new heights when it allowed the PKK’s (Kurdish Workers Party) foreign relations officer to publish an article in its newspapers attacking Turkey, saying that: war is the only way with Ankara. It is worth mentioning that last October, Saudi Minister Thamer al-Sabahan visited the northern countryside of the Syrian province of Raqqa, controlled by Kurdish fighters, accompanied by US Presidential envoy, Brett McGurk, which the Turkish media described as amounting to US-Saudi support for the PKK.
A number of Saudi newspapers held an interview with the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, Saleh Muslim, whose party the Turks regard as a threat to national security. Muslim told the Middle East newspaper about “Ottoman dreams and Turkish hatred for the Arabs.” Muslim went on to accuse Turkey and Qatar of supporting Isis and Nussrah; and said that Turkey had no right to establish a military base in Qatar; and that Erdogan “brought calamity to the Middle East” and demanded direct action be taken against Turkey.
Saudi media’s hosting of Kurdish figures hostile to the Turkish government coincided with a concerted campaign on social networking sites, in which Gulf activists tweeted for a response to the Turkish policy on the Gulf crisis by supporting the Kurds in Syria and supporting the formation of a Kurdish state in Turkey.
Turkish newspaper “Yeni Shafak” published a report stating that US, Saudi and UAE figures met with the Kurdish Autonomous Administration in northern Syria to promise them support, as a direct response to Turkey’s support for Qatar during the Gulf crisis.
The Saudi and UAE media campaign against President Erdogan, in relation to his recent stance on the question of Jerusalem, prompted a backlash in the Turkish media. Thus ended the media silence between the two countries, when previously Turkish media, closely aligned to the ruling Justice and Development Party, had refrained from directing criticism against the Kingdom in an attempt to normalise relations.
For example, the Yeni Shafak newspaper, which is closely associated with President Erdogan, reported that Saudi media had received instructions from Prince Mohammed bin Salman directing them to refrain from criticizing Israel in relation to the confrontations between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army. The newspaper said elsewhere: that Saudi authorities had arrested a Jordanian businessman during his visit to Saudi Arabia as a mark of Saudi displeasure with the King of Jordan, for attending the Istanbul summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on Jerusalem and for denouncing the US declaration.
In a televised interview, the editor-in- chief of the Yeni Shafak newspaper said: Arab officials sat down with Israel to conclude a deal on Jerusalem and accused Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of abandoning Jerusalem to Israel. He added: that Mecca and Medina will be in danger; because young leaders amongst the Arab rulers put Jerusalem on the “bartering” table with the United States and Israel. And he who trades in a holy cause like the Jerusalem issue, would not hesitate to do the same with Mecca and Medina. He went on to say that: every Islamic country is at risk of invasion, including Turkey. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have manipulated the issue of confronting Iran to justify the Jerusalem deal with the United States and Israel to safeguard the future security of their countries.
The aforementioned media interview with the editor-in-chief of Yeni Shafak, who is closely allied to the Turkish presidency, and the views of other Turkish media figures, reflect the extent of Turkish dissatisfaction with the Saudi alliance with the United States and Israel against Turkish national security, not least because of their support for Kurdish organisations hostile to Turkey.
It is evident that the agendas deployed by President Erdogan and Prince Mohammed bin Salman are different. The former criticized the latter indirectly when he criticized the term moderate, middle-of-the-road Islam used by the latter. Erdogan said: “There is no such thing as moderate or immoderate Islam. No one should try to place Islam in a weak position.”
Perhaps the other difference between the two men’s political agendas is that the Turkish president seeks to heal the Sunni-Shiite rift against Israel, which intensified during the era of the Arab Spring, despite the fact he was one of its “godfathers” or architects.
The shift in Turkish position was at odds with Saudi interests. For this reason, Saudi media deliberately arranged an interview with the Israeli chief of staff, who called for intelligence cooperation between the Israelis and the Arab countries to face Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian organizations; while a Bahraini delegation, with the government’s blessing, headed for a visit to Israel in a move aimed at normalization.
Saudi Arabia was betting on the formation of an alliance of Sunni moderates to confront Iran, however, the issue of Jerusalem and Turkey’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia for the leadership of the Muslim world, dealt a blow to the Saudi project; especially after another, clandestine, Islamic alliance between Turkey and Iran was formed.
Slogans such as “Death to America … and Death to Israel … and For Jerusalem we give Millions of Martyrs,” launched by Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, are seen as a strategic shift in policy towards Israel. This strategy weakens Saudi Arabia’s vision of leading a moderate Sunni alliance against militias operating parallel to the armies, that are of a popular ideological nature, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ansar-Allah in Yemen and the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements in Palestine.
If ever there is a popular uprising in Palestine, it will have popular Arab and Islamic support; with regional countries and organizations also standing behind them; which means that it will be prolonged. Turkey will take advantage of this uprising to make political gains against the United States, who support the armed Kurdish factions in Syria. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia will continue in its efforts to lead an Islamic Alliance that is friendly to Israel and will have to contend with being embarrassed every time Israelis kill peaceful Palestinian protesters.
The rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia witnessed over the past few years was a gradual one, dictated by common interests in the Syrian crisis. Were it not for this fact, the fate of the relationship between the two countries would have been on a collision course. Turkey is extremely sensitive to any kind of political or military support for the Kurds in Turkey or Syria, as this directly impacts on its national security. As such, official Saudi support for the Kurds will inevitably lead the two countries into direct conflict, just as happened with the United States, which Erdogan accused of supplying arms and logistical support to Kurdish factions in Syria.