Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) has become a feared figure among the Saudi elites who have been violently purged from their comfortable positions of power, while becoming a figure of hatred across the Shi’a Axis of Resistance in places like Iran, Syria, Yemen and increasingly among all parties in Lebanon.
But there is one world leader who is clearly not afraid of nor impressed with MBS, that man is Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan has given a speech in which he both mocked and criticised Muhammad bin Salman’s recent comments that he seeks to “return” Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam”.
“The term ‘moderate Islam’ is being lathered up again. The patent of moderate Islam belongs to the West. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam; Islam is one. The aim of using such terms is to weaken Islam.
Perhaps the person voicing this concept (Muhammad bin Salman) thinks it belongs to him. No, it does not belong to you”.
Erogan then stated that the term is essentially European in origin. In Erdogan’s newly anti-European posture, this is a deep insult to Muhammad bin Salman, to imply that he’s attempting to Europeanise Islam.
“They are now trying to pump up this idea again. What they really want to do is weaken Islam … We don’t want people to learn about religion from foreign facts.
You say ‘moderate Islam’ but you do not allow women to drive. Is there any restriction in Islam banning women from driving? There is no such thing”.
Erdogan came to power in Turkey on the promise of replacing a static economy with one that is dynamic and modern, combined with the promise to make Islam an integral part of Turkish society in a blow to secular Kemalists who wished Turkey’s guiding force to remain nationalistic secularism.
Superficially, Muhammad bin Salman wants something similar for Saudi Arabia, only in respect of Islam, MBS claims to want to replace hard-line Wahhabism with what he calls “moderate Islam”. Ataturk’s secular Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 while the consolidation of Saudi Arabia took place in 1932 and in this sense, the rise of Kemalism in Turkey mirrors the rise of Wahhabism on the Arabian Peninsula. Just as Erdogan challenged the Kemalist status quo in Turkey, so too is MBS challenging elements of the Wahhabi status quo in his country.
But the real schism between Erdogan and Muhammad bin Salman, doesn’t have anything to do with Islamic scholarship or any other ideological issues, it has everything to do with the Qatari crisis and broader regional alliances.
With Saudi Arabia still boycotting Qatar and Turkey still very much supporting Doha, including with the presence of Turkish Army troops in Qatar, Erdogan is striking a blow against Saudi Arabia’s geo-political ambitions more than anything else.
Erdogan has long been associated with the Qatar backed Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamist group which is illegal in secular Egypt (a Saudi ally) and Syria (a Saudi enemy) but also in Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. In secular Arab states, the Brotherhood is seen as a tool of terrorism and social instability while in Saudi Arabia, it is seen as a challenge to the integrity of Wahhabism. Furthermore, Turkey’s burgeoning relationship with Iran has given Erdogan all the more reason to lash out at Saudi Arabia’s de-facto leader.
Iran is far more comfortable with Erdogan positioning himself as a leader figure among Sunni Muslims than it is with anyone from the much loathed Saudi Arabia. While Iran’s Shi’a clerics would never openly praise Erdogan’s religious credentials, there is no doubt that Iran’s leadership is pleased with Erdogan helping to slam Muhammad bin Salman’s Islamic credentials while Tehran and Hezbollah slam Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy record and Islamic credentials from an Arab Shi’a perspective that is similar to that of Iran.
I recently postulated that if and when Saudi Arabia is able to see that its war in Yemen is a failure, Qatar could position itself as a former Saudi ally that seeks to both make peace in Yemen and make amends with its neighbour but this time on Doha’s terms rather than on the outlandish terms Saudi previously attempted to impose.
While Saudi Arabia is busy purging itself, it ought to realise that attempting to purge the Qatari leadership was yet another geo-political failure and that normalising relations with Doha would be a win-win situation in the context of recent events. In this respect, Turkey too could play some role in a settlement for Yemen. Turkey as a non-Arab state is well placed to be seen as not playing favourites in a dispute between Saudi Arabia and moderate Houthi rebels in Sana’a.
Furthermore, the statement from Erdogan also solidifies Turkey’s position in what I call the new northern Middle East alliance. Turkey’s good relations with Iraq and Iran and its common enemy with Syria; the Kurdish ethnic supremacists, means that Turkey’s allies are mostly in the ‘north’ of the Middle East. By contrast, Saudi Arabia has increased its clout in the ‘south’ of the Middle East, with the exception of Qatar which in many ways is a geo-political ‘pivot state’ in the new south of the Middle East.
This trend is made all the more clear when one sees Saudi and Israel on the rapid road to public normalisation of relations. The regimes are already allies in all but name. At the same time, Turkey which was once a solid partner of Israel, is becoming increasingly opposed to Israel’s pro-Kurdish designs on the region, something which has only encouraged Erdogan to come out in favour of Palestinian justice with more zeal.
This is what lies behind Erdogan’s rejection of “moderate Islam”. It is a fundamental dispute with Saudi Arabia’s geo-political position, even though ironically, Saudi Arabia is pivoting closer to Turkey’s non-Muslim partners Russia and China while maintaining a better relationship with Washington than Erdogan’s Turkey.