Turkey is no longer a part of a coalition looking to roll back Iranian influence - expert

The rivalry between Iran and its Arab neighbours has been ongoing for decades because of fears of Iranian ambitions and the revolutionary spirit of Iranian state ideology following the fall of the Shah in 1979. However, Turkey’s actions since the Arab Spring have coloured perceptions of its motives in regional capitals, giving it a character similar to Tehran’s. 

“Turkey is no longer a part of that loose coalition of countries looking to roll back Iranian influence,” Dr Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington D.C., told Ahval. Instead, he noted that Turkey through its interventions in Syria is now in some ways working to carve out influence. 

Following the fall of rulers across the Middle East to domestic protests, often with Islamist leanings and with moral support from Ankara, leaders in Saudi Arabia and more notably the United Arab Emirates (UAE) began to see Turkey as a Sunni equivalent of Iran. 

Concern over Turkey, Iran and increasing indifference from the U.S imbue a sense of urgency among the Arab states to rethink their alliances. This has played out most prominently in the recent decisions to normalize their relationships with Israel, who share a similar perception of Turkey. The concern is that Turkey will become a second Iran, a regional hegemon in control of proxy forces but who represent Sunni over Shia Islamism. 

“There is the fear that Turkey will unleash a network eventually of non-state militias and support a revolutionary agenda across the region,” Ibish told Ahval. 

On Tuesday in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), blamed much of the chaos in the Middle East on states that “have historical delusions of restoring their domination and colonial rule over the Arab region”. 

To observers, this was a thinly veiled reference to both Iran as well as Turkey. 

Dr Ibish says that while the term neo-Ottomanism is in some ways an oversimplification of Turkish policy, it has particular relevance for Arab states who were once under Ottoman rule. 

“When Erdoğan invokes the Ottoman past, either directly or indirectly, it's a rationalisation for an aggressive foreign policy,” said Dr Ibish.

“When Arabs look at Turkey and Turkey’s ambitions and see a neo-Ottoman project, they get scared.” 

Dr Ibish, who was also a friend of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s, told Ahval that his death still plays a role in an ongoing cold war between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Gulf monarchies, particularly to the West. 

Friday marked the second anniversary since Khashoggi was gruesomely murdered inside the Saudi consulate. His death sparked a row between the kingdom and Turkey, who used Khashoggi’s murder to embarrass a powerful regional rival. 

On Monday, Turkish prosecutors in Istanbul filed new charges against six Saudi nationals for their role in covering up the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Among those charged are high ranking Saudi officials including Saud al-Qahtani, an adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Ahmed al-Asiri, former deputy head of Saudi intelligence. 

“I think in the Middle East, it's now not that big of a deal,” said Ibish to Ahval. “I think that where it has become a real albatross for Saudi Arabia, and especially bin Salman - who is Crown Prince and a potential king - is in the West, particularly the United States.” 

Coldness from Washington has been something of a deterrent to bin Salman, who is known for his close ties to members of the U.S. President Donald Trump administration. 

It was reported the prince cancelled a visit in August where he would shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before it was leaked to the press. Another reason for the cancellation had to do with concern over protestors still enraged by his role in Khashoggi’s assassination. 

This disconnect with the United States is something that has for years now concerned Saudi Arabia’s Gulf allies, who worry about the rising tension with Ankara. Turkey’s aggressive and unilateral foreign policy has unnerved neighbours with policies that some in the Middle East perceive to be part of a neo-Ottoman agenda. 

Concern over Turkey, Iran and increasing indifference from the U.S imbue a sense of urgency among the Arab states to rethink their alliances. This has played out most prominently in the recent decisions to normalize their relationships with Israel, who share a similar perception of Turkey. The concern is that Turkey will become a second Iran, a regional hegemon in control of proxy forces but who represent Sunni over Shia Islamism. 

“There is the fear that Turkey will unleash a network eventually of non-state militias and support a revolutionary agenda across the region,” Ibish told Ahval. 

Maintaining a level of U.S support to counter Iran has been possible across administrations, but enlisting it against Turkey is a separate challenge. Seeking support beyond Washington however, is something Turkey’s Gulf rivals have been pursuing as of late. 

At present, Turkey is locked in multiple geopolitical struggles with an array of nations. In the eastern Mediterranean, it is in conflict with Greece and Cyprus over access to natural gas reserves and disputed maritime boundaries. 

Meanwhile, its once cordial partnership with Russia has come under strain in Syria, Libya and most recently in the Caucasus. In each theatre, Ankara and Moscow are powerful backers of two opposing sides. 

The Gulf countries opposed to Turkey see in these conflicts a reflection of a revisionist agenda they already feel is directed at them. As a result, they have made their voices heard further away from their backyard in the hopes of making a common cause with other Turkish rivals. 

For instance, Egypt and the UAE have for years now worked to restore some relations with the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, and in turn, improve relations with Russia. In the eastern Mediterranean, the UAE last month sent F-16 fighter jets to Crete where they joined military exercises led by Greece, Cyprus and France, another outspoken foe of Ankara. 

Dr Ibish believes that these alliances may be enduring to an extent but are entirely contingent on how long any shared interest last. He refers to this as an “instability of fixed positions” that he attributes to the shift away from global American hegemony to a more multi-polar world. 

“Everyone is looking to rethink their national interests - it is true for Turkey and is true for all states. Everyone is trying to make new alliances.”