Turkey and Saudi Arabia sit on opposite sides of the spectrum, the first a Sunni state defined by its secularism, the latter a Sunni state defined by its sect, and yet the countries have never been closer. This closeness is due to a series of steps that both states have taken in each other’s direction in the past few years.
Saudi’s current King Abdullah officially became monarch in August 2005; exactly one year later he paid a historic visit to Turkey, the first by a Saudi king in four decades. The previous visit in 1966 was by King Faisal who learnt Turkish from his İstanbul-born wife.
In February 2009, Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül visited Riyadh and became the first foreign Muslim leader ever to address the Saudi Shoura consultative assembly. The then 86-year-old monarch made the rare gesture of receiving the visiting foreign dignitary at the airport as a sign of reciprocal respect. Fourteen months earlier President Gül came under heavy criticism from his country’s press for visiting with the Saudi monarch at the latter’s hotel in Ankara rather than at the presidential palace as diplomatic custom would dictate.
In March of last year Saudi Arabia awarded Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam, a move that was viewed as an attempt to “restrain Iranian pretensions to regional hegemony” and perhaps as a sign of encouragement to Turkey’s bold new political stance. The Turkish prime minister reached rock star status among Arabs after he walked off stage a year earlier in protest while on a panel with Israeli President Shimon Perez at the World Economic Forum.
In these few years, warming political relations allowed for growing trade and commerce. By the end of 2010 Turkish-Saudi trade amounted to $4.65 billion, while a treaty to avoid double taxation was signed in 2007 following an agreement to protect mutual investments in 2006. This past summer alone bookings by Saudi tourists were up by a staggering 75 percent according to the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
In addition to political rapprochement, something else happened in 2006: Turkish soap opera. That year the MBC group, an Arab media giant owned by Al Waleed Al Ibrahim, the brother-in-law of former Saudi King Fahad, started broadcasting “Gümüş,” a Turkish soap opera, renamed “Noor” and translated into Arabic. Noor was the first in a series of Turkish shows that played a major role in the latest Turkish renaissance in the Arab world. By the time its final episode was aired it had drawn an audience 80 million Arab viewers, almost twice the number of Al Jazeera’s pre-Arab Spring audience.
Despite the warm relations Turkey and Saudi Arabia did not always see eye to eye during the Arab Spring. While Saudi voiced support for former Egyptian President Husni Mubarak until his last day in office, Turkey was amongst the first countries to ask Mubarak to “listen to the will of the shouting people” in Tahrir Square.
The differences between both states were put aside as another regional power, Syria, started to unravel. The brutal response by Bashar al-Assad’s regime to largely peaceful protests demanding democratic change in Syria was a rallying point for many people across the Middle East. Democratic secular Turkey and monarchical religionist Saudi Arabia held a series of consultations regarding Syria that culminated with the visit of the Turkish president to Saudi Arabia last week. In fact, several Saudi political observers noted that the kingdom had consulted with Turkey prior to withdrawing its ambassador from Damascus. Just before President Gül’s visit, Saudi political commentator Jamal Khashoggi told the Al Arabiya news channel that Saudi and Turkey will soon act diplomatically regarding Syria. They will apply “diplomatic and more” pressure, he added.
Over the past few weeks Turkey gave a number of ultimatums to the Assad regime, which has starved cities of food and cut off electricity and telephone lines. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told the Baathist dictatorship that his country’s “patience is running out” and most recently warned Assad that Turkey would take “steps” unless an immediate and unconditional end is put to the crackdown.
But what steps are available to Turkey?
As Qatar and the United Arab Emirate’s involvement in the NATO operations in Libya provided essential Arab backing to justify foreign intervention in a region with a recent colonial legacy, Turkey will need to rally Arab support for any potential operation inside Syria, whether military or humanitarian.
Saudi Arabia, being the last of the major Arab countries not shaken by unrest, can provide that cover for Turkey. The pressure that Saudi Arabia and Turkey can exert on the Syrian dictatorship is far greater when their efforts are combined. Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region was evident when a few hours after it withdrew its ambassador to Damascus, Kuwait and Bahrain followed suit.
Saudi influence was also evident in the two remaining Arab monarchies outside the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf who were recently promised membership to the Riyadh-based club. Shortly following the Saudi king’s speech to Syria, Morocco issued a statement expressing deep concern, adding that it “traditionally refrained from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries,” while Jordan, a neighboring state to Syria whose relations weren’t always ideal, expressed “rejection and regret over the continued killing” in Syria.
Despite the great amount of goodwill that Turkey enjoys in the Arab world, it cannot justify any unilateral actions, should it opt to do so in Syria without Arab support and cover. In the absence of the traditional Arab powers of Iraq and Egypt, Turkey will have to put all its eggs in the Saudi basket.
*Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a UAE-based commentator on Arab affairs. He tweets as @SultanAlQassemi