Feuding Friends Frustrate Saudi Arabia’s Efforts to Counter Iran

Feuding Friends Frustrate Saudi Arabia's Efforts to Counter Iran

In its regional confrontation with Tehran, Saudi Arabia counts on the two fellow Sunni powers with the same heft as Shiite Iran—Egypt and Turkey.

In that strategic triangle, Turkey has indeed emerged as Saudi Arabia’s main ally in the Syrian conflict. Riyadh and Ankara both support Sunni Islamist rebels fighting against the Iran-backed Assad regime, and have intensified their cooperation in recent months.

Egypt, meanwhile, has played a major role in Saudi efforts to offset Iranian influence in Yemen, joining the Saudi-led military coalition and dispatching its navy to help blockade the Yemeni ports controlled by Tehran-backed Houthi forces. Saudi Arabia

The problem for Saudi Arabia is that the third side of that triangle—Egypt’s relationship with Turkey—is one of open hostility.

While Turkey recently moved to reconcile with Russia and Israel, its relationship with Cairo has remained in deep freeze ever since the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

And, to Riyadh’s frustration, it is also becoming clearer that neither Turkey nor Egypt—bothincreasingly targeted by Islamic State—share Saudi Arabia’s single-minded focus on checking Iran’s growing influence across the Middle East.

Turkey, unlike other Saudi allies, didn’t follow Riyadh’s lead in severing or downgrading diplomatic relations with Iran after the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was vandalized in January. Egypt, whose own relations with Iran collapsed following Cairo’s 1979 peace deal with Israel, doesn’t endorse Saudi desires to overthrow the Syrian regime.

Such reluctance, naturally, worries Riyadh.

“Saudi Arabia wants its allies to state their policies very clearly. It thinks that the time for ambiguous positions is long gone and that the turmoil and violence in the region require very clear and decisive policies,” said Fahad Nazer, a specialist on Saudi affairs at the JTG intelligence firm and a former analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

Feuding Friends Frustrate Saudi Arabia's Efforts to Counter Iran

Part of the reason for this hesitation is the complicated interplay between the two main conflicts rocking the Middle East: the Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide that preoccupies Riyadh and the clash between foes and supporters of political Islam that remains a key issue in Cairo and Ankara.

For Egypt, ever since Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi ousted President Morsi and outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, the need to confront political Islam and prevent the Brotherhood from gaining influence anywhere in the region remains the main national-security priority—and trumps concerns about distant Iran.

In Syria, this means that the Assad regime is seen by Cairo as a lesser evil than the Brotherhood-inspired and Saudi-backed “moderate” Sunni rebels, let alone the radicals allied with al Qaeda or Islamic State.

“The Saudi government is significantly more robust in wanting to change the Syrian regime as a priority issue. Our position is that this is not the priority issue,” said Nabil Fahmy, who served as Egypt’s foreign minister under Mr. Sisi in 2013-14. “For us, it is to ensure the stability of the Syrian state system, and then the Syrians will decide who changes and who doesn’t change. We do not want the collapse of the Syrian state, with all the implications this will have domestically and regionally.”

But for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist politician who took the ouster and imprisonment of Mr. Morsi as a personal affront, ideological commitments outweigh the obvious geopolitical advantages of potential cooperation with Egypt, the most populous Arab country.

Turkey’s new prime minister, Binali Yildirim, this month called for renewed commercial and other ties with Egypt, but reiterated that Ankara won’t accept the 2013 “coup against democracy.” Egypt responded by demanding an official recognition of its new leadership.

Such a refusal to recognize Mr. Sisi has become “a fixed idea” for Mr. Erdogan, explained former Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis.

“The state of Egypt and the state of Turkey should not have any problems. Egypt is an essential partner for anything you want to do in the Middle East, and Turkey is depriving itself of this support,” said Mr. Yakis, one of the co-founders of Turkey’s ruling party and a former Turkish ambassador in Egypt.

Mr. Erdogan, he added, is making a strategic mistake by hewing too closely to Riyadh. Saudi Arabia

“Turkey should not take the risk of antagonizing Iran. It already went quite a long distance to that, and Turkey may suffer from this in the future, when the interests of Turkey and Saudi Arabia start to diverge.”

Feuding Friends Frustrate Saudi Arabia's Efforts to Counter Iran

In part, it is the change in Saudi Arabia’s own attitude to the Muslim Brotherhood that fueled its rapprochement with Turkey. Ever since the ouster of Mr. Morsi, Riyadh—alongside the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait—has been an indispensable financial supporter of the Sisi regime. The previous Saudi ruler, King Abdullah, also shared Mr. Sisi’s animosity to the Brotherhood, declaring it a terrorist group.

But King Salman, who came to power last year, has adopted a much friendlier attitude to political Islam. He and his son, Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, rapidly moved to accommodate Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in both Syria and Yemen, much to Mr. Sisi’s dismay and Mr. Erdogan’s delight.

“Foreign policy is not particularly well institutionalized in these countries. We’re not talking about government-to-government relations in a normal sense,” explained Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a new book, “Islamic Exceptionalism.” “Take Saudi-Egypt, Egypt-Turkey or Turkey-Saudi. All of these relationships are dependent on the idiosyncrasies of erratic individuals.”

YAROSLAV TROFIMOV – Wall Street Journal