Erdoğan’s international stature continues to fall

Following the announcement of formal diplomatic relations and commercial ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the U.S. president has announced that Kosovo and Serbia will pursue closer political and commercial relations and Kosovo will establish relations with Israel.

And while the UAE will place its embassy in Tel Aviv, Serbia and Kosovo will have their embassies in Jerusalem. This decision by Kosovo to locate its diplomatic presence in Jerusalem was immediately denounced by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs; likewise for the decision of Serbia to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The Turkish Ministry’s denunciation reflects President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s goal to see Jerusalem under Muslim control. Each country that shifts its embassy to Jerusalem places this goal further out of reach. That Kosovo, a Muslim-majority country in which Turkey has influence, would do so indicates that in the contest between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for influence within Sunni Muslim communities in the Middle East, the Kingdom now outpaces the Republic.  

The recent reduction of sentences for the murderers of Jamal Khashoggi also indicates the greater regional influence of Saudi Arabia compared to Turkey. While opponents of the death penalty can express relief that capital punishment will not be exacted upon the perpetrators of the physical murder of Khashoggi, the intellectual author or personal inspiration for the crimes, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed ben Salman, has faced few negative repercussions for his role in the killing.

This tragic reality reveals how much influence the Saudi government continues to wield throughout the Middle East – few could afford to openly denounce the crown prince for the death of Khashoggi. At the same time, Erdoğan garnered little more than sympathetic platitudes from friends and allies against the brazen murder by foreign security personnel within Turkey. This speaks volumes about the relative strength and importance of third countries attach to their relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia. 

There are economic, political and religious factors causing this loss of stature for Erdoğan among Muslims in the region.

The last few years have seen a steady decline in Turkey’s relative economic strength. This renders Turkey less able to counter Saudi economic influence. Looking at the Kosovo-Serbia agreement, clearly the financial inducements from Washington outweighed any concerns the leadership Kosovo might have had about offending Turkey and losing any largesse Turkey might be able to dispense.

Though the Saudis have also faced difficult economic times, their vast petroleum reserves, with relatively low production costs compared to other major oil producers of the world, continue to provide a sound base for their economy and make possible expending large sums to influence others. 

Make no mistake, the Israeli-UAE and Kosovo-Serbia agreements would not have taken place if Saudi Arabia had actively opposed them via its economic clout. That Saudi Arabia acquiesced, or even supported, these agreements does not reveal a loss of financial power but a decision by the kingdom to favour economic integration and development in the region regardless of the status of Jerusalem. 

Politically, Turkey’s external relations have continued to sour with many if not most friends and allies. Russia may help at times when advantageous to Russia, but becoming a junior partner of Vladimir Putin will not enhance Erdoğan’s stature among devout Muslims outside of Turkey. With NATO and the European Union, Erdoğan’s sympathetic attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood as well as his support for and later use of Islamist militants in Syria and Libya raises concerns in all the Western capitals. 

Within the Muslim communities of the Middle East, one suspects that the former subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire, especially the Arab populations, do not romanticise and falsify the history of the centuries of subordination to Turkish rule – nor want to see it return, not even via soft power (except for Turkish television series, but Erdoğan appears set to stifle that).  A partnership between various Muslim national groups may be the ideal, but national or ethnic identity and pride takes precedence over pan-Islamic unity.

At one time, Turkey stood out as a Muslim-majority democracy as well as a vibrant and growing economy. With the increasing authoritarian misrule of President Erdoğan, few Muslims outside of Turkey look to the country or its leader as the model for their nations’ political or economic development.

The Saudis may not be the ideal model either, but at least they make no pretence to respect fundamental civil and political rights as liberal democracies do. Erdoğan’s ongoing efforts to concentrate power in his hands offends not only half of the Turkish population, but many Muslims who thought Turkish democracy was the answer to the charge that Islam cannot tolerate liberal, pluralist democracy. 

In sum, Erdoğan’s efforts to parlay Muslim victimhood and anti-Western sentiment into a pre-eminent role for himself among Muslims in the Middle East looks to be failing. Turkey’s economic soft-power cannot match Saudi Arabia’s, and Erdoğan’s populist authoritarianism puts off those hoping for a model of a vibrant, tolerant and confident democratic state among the Muslim nations.

The Emiratis and the Kosovars have chosen economic development over ideology and image; Erdoğan should follow suit.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.