The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.
The divergence between Abu Dhabi’s and Riyadh’s positions in Yemen, the UAE’s maritime talks with Iran, and ostensible attempts at reconciliation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have resulted in speculation that cracks are emerging in the Saudi Emirati alliance. In the recent past, this partnership has constituted the main power bloc of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which itself had replaced the traditional Middle East power centers in the wake of the Arab Spring. The rift between the Saudi-UAE bloc and Qatar that has emerged after the former blockaded the latter in June 2017 defines the emerging power players in this new geopolitical landscape.
The UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) attack on Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces in Aden revealed the UAE’s plans to revive the agenda of STC separatists in Southern Yemen, a move that has raised eyebrows in Riyadh. This came after equally concerning news for Riyadh when Abu Dhabi held maritime security talks with Tehran. Despite statements from the UAE saying that the talks did not represent any breakthrough in UAE-Iran relations, their timing in the wake of the U.S. maximum pressure campaign signaled that the UAE’s strategy of restraint was the preferred choice of Abu Dhabi in containing the region’s escalating tensions. Simultaneously, media reports of Kuwaiti mediation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar amidst the Gulf crisis became an equally alternative policy line for the GCC.
Given the surfacing of these differences, it could only be a matter of time until these festering divergences evolve into full-blown cracks in the Saudi-UAE alliance. Even if the fissures do not grow, in their most benign form these differences still show that the outwardly linked partners do not see eye-to-eye on all regional issues. The situation also signals possible variances of involvement and differentiated interests in regional geopolitics as it pertains to Yemen and Libya, and even beyond in Somalia and Sudan. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia and UAE may also like to find new partners to go beyond the current alliance patterns of the Gulf crisis.
The contrasts among these allies are mostly related to their dissimilar perspectives on the role of the U.S. and its policies, possible responses to Iran in case of a crisis, and the avoidance of unnecessary associations with failed initiatives in the region. On the opposing side of these nominal allies is Turkey, which due to the ways in which the Gulf crisis has shaped the region, is framed as a partner of Qatar against the Saudi-UAE bloc. Prior to the Arab Spring, Turkey had good relations with both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. However, these flourishing political and economic relations ended when 2011’s upheaval across the Middle East and North Africa and it put Ankara’s policy lines arguably in diametric opposition to those of its once burgeoning friends.
The Saudi-UAE duo considered Turkey’s support of the popular uprisings, its backing of majoritarian transformations, and its close relations with Egypt’s Morsi government as a challenge to their very regional survival. Turkey’s policy was an anathema to the Saudi-UAE line of authoritarian stability, elimination of the Muslim brotherhood, and continued support of military rulers in positions power. In several instances, Turkish policymakers cast blame on Saudi Arabia and the UAE for a variety of regional and international policies perceived as hostile to Turkey.
The blockade against Qatar in June 2017 was seen as a final attempt by the Saudi-UAE alliance to isolate Turkish interests in the Gulf and possibly beyond. In response, Turkey reinforced its military base in Qatar and supplied daily products to the blockaded nation in order to defy a possible maneuver against Doha.
Ankara closely watches the cracks in the Saudi-UAE alliance for sure. In this sense, there is more trust for a rapprochement with Riyadh in Ankara. As witnessed in the Khashoggi case, Erdogan seems willing to utilize all possible means to limit Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) role in crafting Saudi politics and encourages the elevation of more moderate elements within the Saudi leadership. Above all, Erdogan wishes to see a revitalized role for King Salman who he believes would seek-out less self-destructive ways of curbing Iran’s policies in the region.
When looking at the course of developments that have occurred after increasing the pressure on Iran (i.e. attacks on Saudi oil production,) there is a high risk of military confrontation if and when pressure on Iran is further increased. In light of this understanding, Ankara calls for restraint and dialogue in dealing with Iran. In this regard, even a small degree of Saudi drawback from its current maximalist course would be beneficial for Turkey. In the same sense, any positive steps between Riyadh and Doha will be positive for Ankara as well.
In something like a domino effect, if Turkey and Saudi Arabia could reconcile on regional matters, a solution to the unrest in Syria and even in Yemen may also be possible. Saudis could help Turkey to reconcile with Egypt in exchange for a counterbalancing Turkish role in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon against Iran. However, given MBS’ current approach, none of this could come to fruition as long as he stays his course.
Saudi policy of gathering an anti-Iran bloc in the region, its assertive moves from Yemen to Qatar, and willingness to back Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ has alienated Turkish expectations to co-opt Saudi Arabia into its regional policy. The Saudi unwavering opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood has left for Turkish and Qatari positions little room for cooperation.
From Ankara’s perspective, the more problematic actor is the UAE. Abu Dhabi’s line has been able to convince the Saudis that Turkey and Qatar are enemies, open to an Iranian role and wanting to isolate the pro-Western UAE and Saudi Arabia. Not surprisingly, Turkey and the UAE supported rival Libyan factions in the war-torn country. On the other hand, UAE displays more flexibility in regional policies as witnessed in the Yemeni and Iranian cases. However, one could expect a thaw in the relations only after major recalculations of regional policies and engagements beyond the region.
The cracks in the Saudi-UAE alliance are not likely to change their attitudes towards Turkey unless they widen into major divergences, consequently, these cracks do not present any major opportunity for Turkey. Although it will be considered a constructive move in Ankara, any concrete developments towards a solution to the Gulf crisis, (i.e. an ease in the Qatari blockade) may not result in a change for Turkey and Saudi/UAE relations.
The policymakers in Ankara on one hand, and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the other, are stuck in a high-alert mode in response to each other’s policies. The scope of rivalry is deepening due to policies that include, among others, Turkey’s military support to the Libyan government, the visit of the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs to Cyprus, Turkey’s expansion of its military base in Doha, and Abu Dhabi’s and Riyadh’s contacts with the Syrian Kurdish YPG.
As the cracks will not enhance the ability of Gulf countries to steer clear of regional conflicts, there is no prospect for a positive change in Ankara’s relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. All sides recognize to search for common ground is likely to be illusory in such a hostile geopolitical environment.
Bulent Aras is a Senior Scholar at the Istanbul Policy Center and Visiting Researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an advisor to Gulf State Analytics.