November 20, 2018
Arab spring and the Syrian conflict have led some observers to look at Middle East developments through the prism of regional “rivalry” or “competition”. Countries generally mentioned are Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Israel is also prominently involved in regional affairs but the current emphasis seems to be on confrontations between Muslim countries which can’t even manage get around a table to address regional problems. Thus, all three are said to be in a “fierce struggle” for regional supremacy and the latter two for the leadership of the Sunni world. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has provided the discussion with additional material.
There can be different paths to regional supremacy. To embark on such a path a country needs power. And, power has economic, military and political components.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are oil-rich countries but liable to price fluctuations. Moreover, Tehran and its major trading partners are now faced with US sanctions. In Iran, economic discontent and frustration with Washington are rising. Saudi Arabia remains world’s largest exporter of oil; it has client states within the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) but money alone cannot guarantee regional supremacy. Turkey, on the other hand, is an importer of oil and gas and also liable to price fluctuations in the opposite direction. However, despite ups and downs, Turkey has been able to build a diversified economic base. In the early 2000s Turkey experienced an economic boom but now faces a crisis. The underlying reasons are political as much as economic.
As for military power, according to Foreign Policy (*), Iran’s defense spending (around $12.3 billion in 2016) is modest compared with Saudi Arabia’s ($63.7 billion in 2016 and $69.4 billion in 2017), and its defense technology generally falls well below that of other regional states. However, Iran has invested in other areas, especially ballistic missiles, to provide a competitive edge with its neighbors. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a formidable force and its regular military has an estimated 350,000 active-duty soldiers.
Iran has signed the JCPOA with the P5+1 and the IAEA has constantly confirmed its compliance. However, Tehran still maintains the capacity to produce nuclear weapons if the deal were to fall apart. In other words, despite some shortcomings, Iran is a military power of consequence.
The Saudi military is smaller but better equipped. The Kingdom has been spending billions and billions of dollars on sophisticated military equipment, especially aircraft. It is estimated to have around 250,000 active-duty personnel. But they lack combat experience as the war in Yemen shows. Iran is accused of arming the Houthis. A look at the map shows that this is not an easy task. If Iran is indeed providing the group with enough arms to confront the Saudi-led coalition despite the naval blockade and US intelligence support, this is some accomplishment.
The war in Yemen was probably launched by Prince Muhammad bin Salman to show that Saudi Arabia could match what Iran has “accomplished” in Syria. The project has failed. The truth is, Saudi Arabia can’t challenge Iran militarily unless it is part of a large U.S.-led coalition. However, mutual hostility will continue so long as the Kingdom sees Tehran as a threat to its security and stability. One needs to remember in this connection that Shiites make up strong majorities in Iran, Bahrain, Iraq and roughly 15% of Saudi Arabia’s population is also Shiite.
Thus, the much-hated secularism remains ultimate remedy to problems arising from Middle East’s sectarian divide.
Turkey is an important military powers, not at the very top but reasonably high up on the list. It has a defense industry. It is a member of NATO. In times of rising regional tensions, the Alliance has not hesitated to send Patriot batteries to Turkey to demonstrate its solidarity. But lately, the chemistry has started to change. And, the decades-long fight against the PKK and Syria related security problems continue to be a drain on Turkey’s military budget.
The Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin signed between the Safavid and the Ottoman empires on May 17, 1639 ended a long war. To underline their long-lasting relationship both countries often refer to the frontier established by this Treaty as one which has endured. Turkey’s relations with Iran have followed an ebb-and-flow pattern for decades. Following the Islamic Revolution Tehran meddled in Turkey’s internal affairs. Now the relationship is more stable but differences in regional outlook, particularly in Syria remain. Both Iran and Turkey will continue to do their best to avoid an open confrontation of any kind.
Saudi Arabia has traditionally looked at Turkey as a regional rival. Shaping its outlook has been Turkey’s Ottoman legacy, unconfessed envy for the progress Turkey has made under Ataturk’s leadership and hostility towards Turkey’s secularism. For Ankara, the Kingdom’s rulers were the “custodians of the two holy mosques” before everything else. However, with the Arab spring and the war in Syria the relationship went off track. Although the two countries’ leaders were determined to oust President Assad, with Turkey’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, its siding with Qatar and its championing the Palestinian cause the relationship turned sour. And, on top of these has come the Khashoggi murder.
Since military and economic power do not offer huge opportunities for regional supremacy to any one of these three countries, soft power becomes the key to regional ascendancy.
Saudi Arabia where women are still second-class citizens does not inspire the peoples of the Middle East except for the extremists. Yes, Islam’s holiest shrines are there but they need to see progress, an evolution towards democracy. It is generally admitted that instability in the Kingdom would affect the entire Gulf and open the gates of unprecedented trouble not only for the region but also the world, threatening vital oil and gas supplies. Thus, whatever weaknesses the House of Saud may have, these become a source of strength in its dealings with the West, primarily Washington, and the guarantee of continued support. How the Khashoggi murder would impact Saudi Arabia’s and the Crown Prince’s future remains to be seen.
Iran does inspire the peoples of the Middle East either because its regime is authoritarian, oppressive. Iranian “moderates” like President Khatami and Rouhani have been unable to deliver the long-expected reforms. This not going to change in the foreseeable future. Beyond that, the way Tehran has stood up to the West, particularly to Washington, must have caught regional peoples’ attention. Iran has a long history of statehood and despite multiple challenges the regime appears stable.
In brief, both Iran and Saudi lack soft power.
This leaves Turkey with the potential to inspire. But, that potential is fast eroding. During the early years of the ruling Justice and Development Party, Turkey engaged in political and economic reform. Accession talks with the EU were launched. Turkey was a facilitator between Israel and Syria. Peoples of the region followed Turkey’s trajectory with envy. Today, the picture has faded. We are polarized and faced with economic, foreign and security policy challenges. Yet, some still say that we are a central country, a global power. We are not. Most importantly, Turkey’s world outlook is blurred. Our narrative for the future is unconvincing and based on unclear premises. Regardless, some still refer to a Turkish-Saudi struggle for the leadership of the Sunni world. There may be a competition for influence but leadership is something else. Even if regimes friendlier to Turkey like the Muslim Brotherhood were to come to power across the Arab world, Turkey’s becoming a “big brother” would always remain a myth because of its Ottoman legacy. A democratic Turkey inspiring the Middle East, the narrative of a decade ago, was another story.
Despite the discussion on the global decline of democracy, Turkey’s leaders need to realize that, particularly at this juncture and more than ever before, Turkey’s returning to the democratic path and rebuilding its soft power will put the country ahead of many others not only in the Middle East but beyond as well. They also need to see that ensuring regional ascendancy through democratic reform is the least costly way to the top.