Turkey’s veteran President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Saudi Arabia’s still youthful Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Sultan (MbS) make an odd couple. Optimistic observers see this week’s meeting between the two in Jeddah as part of the Turkish president’s apparent tilt towards moderation since his re-election. Yes, he has appointed more orthodox economic advisers, backed Ukraine’s candidacy for Nato and even agreed to let Sweden into the alliance – but on conditions yet to be met.

In reality, those Western hopes amount to clutching at straws. The rapprochement between the Turkish and Saudi strongmen which started a year ago in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reflects their sense that Vladimir Putin’s brutal break with international norms against aggression was an opportunity for their two countries to break the chains of restraint hemming them in too. Despite Erdogan’s warm words for Ukraine’s entry into Nato, his invitation to Vladimir Putin to visit Turkey still stands. Turkey remains a key transport hub for both Russians travelling abroad. 

The Saudi Crown Prince, too, has courted the Kremlin for years now. Russia has been accused of evading Western oil sanctions by selling it to the Saudis, presumably at a discounted rate. MBS’s ability to chart choppy waters since the dismembering of the Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, 2018, was testament to how far his vast oil reserves can calm consciences. Then, Erdogan pointed the finger of blame directly at the Saudis and released taped intercepts. But since last year, the tune has changed. 

Erdogan’s capricious approach to foreign policy means he has reversed Turkey’s stance as the champion of “democracy” across the Middle East.  Having thundered denunciations of the military coup in Egypt in 2013 which toppled Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood allies, now Ankara and Cairo are set to kiss-and-make-up too. Egypt’s dictator al-Sisi and the Saudi autocrat are not firm allies of the West like their predecessors were for decades. The Middle East’s major despots are now playing against US policy and interests. Both al-Sisi and MBS have courted Vladimir Putin, while not refusing American high-tech weaponry which Washington approves on autopilot. 

Saudi Arabia is re-opening diplomatic relations with Iran, which once seemed its sworn enemy. As a stern Sunni at home playing on such sentiments to help win the presidential election this year, Erdogan nonetheless courts Iranian-Turkish trade, not least in gold, which may have helped Tehran circumvent Western sanctions. Turkey’s wobbly economy is helped by the agreement with the Saudis to sell drones and other equipment celebrated as the country’s biggest ever defence contract. 

Although Erdogan went on to Qatar after his Saudi visit, his hosts there must worry that he has come to squeeze more “investment” for Turkey out of them in return for restraining MBS from renewing his sanctions on them from 2017. 

The Middle East is in a new kind of mess as the regional power players shift their allegiances and enmities while the Biden administration’s priority is interfering in Israel’s internal ructions over Netanyahu’s proposed changes to the judiciary. Containing Iran or dissuading MBS and Erdogan from throwing their weight around in a region that is always on the verge of war has mysteriously dropped off Washington’s priorities.

Like its record or loathe it, no one should think that directionless drift in American policy in the Middle East can do anything to discourage trouble-makers. Maybe there was a time when the West could hope that American absence would be compensated by close relations between Ankara and Riyadh as an axis of stability in the Middle East. Not today. As America is eased out of its central role, reckless and ruthless gamblers like Erdogan and MBS are moving centre stage.

Source: The Telegraph

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