So it is official: The Saudi government is actively attempting to block Turkish exports. The revelation will surprise no one who has followed the rising tensions between the two countries but it nonetheless signals an escalation. Why is Saudi Arabia raising tensions and how should Turkey respond?
Adnan R. Khan: Could you briefly outline what has happened and what has Turkey ’s response been?
Ilter Turan: Relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been deteriorating more rapidly for the last couple of years. The latest manifestation is the decision to boycott imports from Turkey. of course, these imports involve not only goods but also services, including construction. Initially, Sauidi companies began to talk about not buying from Turkey, but it soon became clear that this is not just a decision on the part of “patriotic” Saudi businessmen but a policy that the Saudi government has articulated. And it’s not just to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are also trying to influence other actors with whom they have good relations, asking them to not import goods from Turkey. Apparently, this influence peddling has extended all the way into Morocco, and naturally also into the Gulf.
Turkey still seems to be pondering how it should meet this challenge. Sometimes these symbolic activities turn out not to be particularly effective and go away quickly. But one of the difficulties is that Turkey does not have many means which it can use for reciprocal action. Furthermore, the frailty of the Turkish economy at this time means that Turkey would not like to lose markets, nor would it like to lose sources of investment. So, Turkey is still trying to figure out what to do. At minimum, however, it would likely produce some symbolic responses.
Adnan R. Khan: Does Saudi Arabia have that kind of widespread influence to dictate to others? Its legitimacy these days is almost purely based on being home to Mecca and the Kaaba, right?
Ilter Turan: It is also based on the fact that it has been able, at least in the past, to dispense significant funds. But these days, the Saudis are in a weakened position economically. The countries receiving assistance would probably not challenge the Saudi decision directly. They might simply ignore it or find ways to bypass it. Initially, this is what is likely to happen. The Saudi expectation is that this will constitute a punitive reprisal against Turkey’s policies. Most recently, Saudi Arabia has been heavily criticized by Turkey because of its softening position toward Israel, leading to more provocative acts on the part of Israel in territories that are supposed to belong to the Palestinians.
Adnan R. Khan: Is the Palestine issue an area where Turkey and Saudi Arabia compete?
Ilter Turan: The competition, more broadly, concerns offering leadership to the Islamic countries. Turkey seems to be siding with forces that want change. You might recall that when the Arab Spring began, the Turkish government made a strategic decision to support the Muslim Brotherhood or similar movements which were the only reasonably organized opposition movements in the Middle East and North Africa. This policy presented a direct threat to traditional regimes throughout the region. That is why discomfort with Turkey is not confined to Saudi Arabia but includes countries like the UAE and also Morocco, all of whom are concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood as a challenge to their rule. Therefore, they share a common interest in restraining Turkey.
There are other issues of disagreement. The Saudis, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have tried to introduce modernizing changes in their own society. But reforms have stalled because the traditional elite is resisting and the country is experiencing its own financial difficulties. Also, the way in which the Saudi government is trying to bring about change is highly problematical. One must remember that Salman was behind the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist living in the U.S., in Istanbul. At this moment, it may be that the Saudis are worried that Donald Trump, who protected Salman against accusations that he ordered Khashoggi’s murder, might lose the election. Biden will not necessarily have as much sympathy for the way the Saudis operate in the world.
Adnan R. Khan: How does ramping up tensions with Turkey help Saudi Arabia? Or does it?
Ilter Turan: I’m inclined to think it doesn’t. It is the erratic behavior of a leadership that is panicking about how to cope with the world. obviously, Saudi actions will inflict some damage on Turkey but not so severe as to constitute an existential threat. And I do not think many other countries will rush to support the Saudi actions.
Adnan R. Khan: What would be the best way then for Turkey to respond?
Ilter Turan: It is better to ignore it so that it does not escalate or bring in other parties. I have a feeling that this may not last very long or prove to be particularly effective. But, Turkey is pretty isolated in the MENA region and must therefore look for ways to improve its relations with the countries of the region which requires starting to talk to them, including the Saudis.