By James M. Dorsey
Saudi Arabia and Turkey, despite being on opposite sides of Middle Eastern divides, are cooperating in Syria to enable youth and women to acquire skills that would either allow them to compete in the job market or turn them into entrepreneurs.
The Saudi-funded, Turkish-executed projects potentially highlight a newly found degree of pragmatism and fluidity among seemingly entrenched alliances in the Middle East that largely pitch Turkey, Iran and Qatar against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey differ on some of the Middle East’s most important divides. Turkey backs Qatar in its 15-month-old dispute with a Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance that is boycotting the Gulf state economically and diplomatically and is competing with Saudi Arabia, and even more so with its closest ally, the UAE, for influence in the Horn of Africa.
While Turkey and Saudi Arabia are closer in their approach towards Syria, Turkey hosts members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has been banned in the kingdom and is at the centre of its conflict with Qatar. It also opposes US sanctioning of Iran that has been embraced by Saudi Arabia.
Turkey further has exploited Saudi reluctance to aggressively oppose US President Donald J. Trump’s pro-Israel policy to position itself as the leader of the Islamic world in supporting the Palestinians. Turkish officials have suggested that the UAE had funded a failed 2016 military coup.
The projects are but one indication of the seeming emergence of a degree of pragmatism on the part of parties on all sides of the Middle Eastern divide. Other indications include differences between Turkey, Russia and Iran over how to handle Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold in Syria; Bahraini trial balloons suggesting a softening of the boycott of Qatar; and Turkish-German efforts to mend fences with one another.
The signs of flexibility are as fragile as the alliances themselves. They are being put to a test with the disappearance in Istanbul of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who disappeared this week during a visit to the Saudi consulate.
Mr. Khashoggi, known for his close ties to the ruling family, went a year ago into self-exile in Washington, after being banned from publishing, which he feared was a prelude to arrest.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey have so far commented on Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. A Saudi Press Agency report said an unidentified Saudi national accused of having signed cheques that bounced had been deported to the kingdom on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by Interpol. The agency gave no further details.
While it is unknown whether the agency was referring to Mr. Khashoggi, many fear that he may have been kidnapped. It would not be the first time that Saudi Arabia has forcibly repatriated its critics.
A Saudi detention or nabbing of Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul without at least tacit Turkish cooperation would embarrass Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and likely spark a further deterioration of Turkish-Saudi relations. If Turkey was complicit, it would bear testimony to increasing pragmatism.
Meanwhile, Saudi-Turkish cooperation in Syria goes beyond relief and development aid. It helps Turkey create a sphere of influence in areas of Syria near Turkey’s border that are controlled by Turkish troops and administered by Turkey.
In a bid to compliment Turkish hard power in Syria with soft power and counter Kurdish influence, Mr. Erdogan’s Religious Affairs Directorate or Diyanet has trained Syrian religious personnel, according to a 104-page report published by the directorate.
The report said that the directorate had spent a total of US$34.1 million dollars in Syria on thing like repairing mosques, distributing Kurdish-language Qur’ans, and educating 11,250 students.
Journalist Amed Dicle said that Diyanet had recruited 5,686 teachers from the ranks of rebels opposed to the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad whose curriculum emphasized Turkey’s synthesis between Islam and nationalism and included anti-Kurdish teachings. “Kurds are portrayed as atheists, and the PKK, YPG and other Kurdish fighters are infidels,” Mr. Dicle said, referring to the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party and its Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Units.
A Syrian imam told Al-Monitor that “we're getting paid by the Turkish government. We're grateful to them and we see that the local population here are happy to be under Turkish rule. For Turkey, religious and national allegiance are one and the same. But our interpretation of Islam may not always be the same. Turkey keeps Kurds under control and that's good for us. Plus, one day Syrians in Turkey may come and settle in these areas.”
Saudi cooperation with Turkey and its anti-Kurdish agenda in Syria has not prevented the kingdom from establishing ties to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region that borders on Iran with the opening of a consulate in Erbil, initiation of Saudia flights from Jeddah to Erbil, and a visit by Saudi businessmen.
Bahrain reportedly hinted last month that the Gulf states boycotting Qatar may re-open airspace to flights bound from and to Doha. The continued closure has forced Qatar Airways to fly longer routes to circumvent Saudi, UAE and Bahraini airspace at considerable cost to the airline. The report was widely seen as a trial balloon.
Similarly, Mr. Erdogan travelled last week to Germany with which it has had strained relations in a bid to increase his options following a summit with Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani, the presidents of Russia and Iran, in which he for now delayed a Syrian-Russian assault on Idlib that would have sent hundreds of thousands, if not millions fleeing towards the Turkish border.
The limitations of the notion, apparently shared by German chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr. Erdogan, that deep differences can easily be put aside to pragmatically focus on issues of common interest, a key pillar of Middle Eastern alliances, were on display with the European Parliament this week voting to withhold 70 million euros in pre-accession funding because Turkey had failed to reverse its moves towards authoritarianism.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom