Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was delighted to see a Saudi prince at his side last week, spent Friday in Cairo, the last stop on his five-nation tour of the Middle East. It was a testament to Turkey’s expanding military influence in the region — and what a post-American Mideast could look like.
Over the past several months, the traditionally allied Turkey and Egypt have publicly feuded over the crackdown in Egypt after a military coup deposed its elected president in 2013. Last week, the Turkish president made controversial comments that suggested a long-running reconciliation between the two nations might be in trouble.
In Egypt, Erdogan also told his Egyptian counterpart that neighboring Israel, an ally of the United States and Saudi Arabia that has faced increased criticism from Ankara, should be “dragged to trial.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also pointedly placed his finger on the table in front of him while addressing a foreign ministers’ meeting, a Western press report says.
Erdogan’s remarks suggested he’s taking a firm approach in his efforts to establish a new, regional model of authoritarianism, trying to disrupt the liberal vision of Western Europe, but without backing down to longstanding allies like the United States.
In public and behind the scenes, it’s clear that Erdogan plans to challenge the U.S. role in the region and force the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to take a back seat. Along the way, Turkey has courted Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran, three of Washington’s Middle East allies, while competing with Saudi Arabia for influence in the Arab world.
Erdogan is using historical grievances, such as the crushing of the Turkish government by the occupying Ottoman Empire and a national plan for expansion in the region, to invoke Ottoman notions of equality. These visions are common in the region; the founding of the first Palestinian state, a project decades in the making, illustrates this point. That’s why Egypt and Turkey are torn by conflicting political and religious narratives.
Erdogan’s surprising invitation of his Saudi counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Ankara last week was a signal that Turkish-Saudi relations are shifting from one of awkwardness to a collaboration that could fundamentally reshape the Middle East. The perception in Turkey is that the United States is the biggest beneficiary of the relationship; it’s time for the Turks to gain more clout in their backyard.
The relationship is reciprocal: Saudi Arabia has begun to show signs of weakness, as it seeks to build consensus around its strategy of “oil sovereignty” in the context of the historic rise of U.S. shale oil production. The kingdom is increasingly anxious that rising American oil output will erode its hold on markets.
Erdogan also has strong economic reasons to build closer cooperation with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi economy is anemic; the U.S. plans to reduce its support to the oil-producing cartel OPEC.
However, Turkey would likely have to be a U.S. ally to play a major role in dealing with Riyadh’s vulnerabilities. Erdogan’s seemingly unilateral invitation of the crown prince to Ankara stands in stark contrast to Turkey’s consensus-building for closer relations with Moscow, Tehran and Beijing. Turkey has become a pivotal player in the race for influence in the Middle East, a shift that comes at a price for the country’s long-held relationship with the United States.