Istanbul feels a far-off land, entirely riven by divisions
With the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in town, Istanbul makes for an ideal springboard for a visit. And that’s just what it got: the first direct flight from Saudi Arabia’s capital city to Istanbul since the Arab spring.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman was officially the guest of the Turkish prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, who was at an international conference at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, one of Turkey’s most iconic architectural sites.
His arrival in Turkey drew a limelight that would not have been dimmed otherwise. His trip to a number of regional capitals is the latest demonstration of a pro-western foreign policy that, despite its limits, is central to long-term national strategy for the Saudis.
Saudi Arabia has made the co-sponsorship of the G20 summit in April in its home city – which will bring together politicians and business leaders from around the world – an essential element of the plan. After the rise of the Brotherhood in 2011, the kingdom felt aggrieved at what it saw as Western censure, and decided to integrate its relationship with the US in the Middle East to counter the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and other non-state, Islamist actors.
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As shown by the relationship between Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the government’s priority remains in restoring Cairo’s image with Washington. Yet the return of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to office in 2014 sent a contradictory message: its treatment of some of the youth who led the 2011 revolt did not fit the narrative of saviours, nor the narrative that Sisi had turned Egypt into a more liberal and less authoritarian state.
By focusing on the Iraqi Kurds and the support from Iran for Sisi, Riyadh became an unreliable regional ally. This came despite the Saudi crown prince saying he backed the Assad regime in Syria and had considered using force there.
So the prince began to forge connections across the Middle East that were to become more serious over the next two years. But to do so, it needed to deepen its relationship with Washington.
Turkey was put on the Saudi Arabia lead. Riyadh gave its “friend” at a major conference on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Russia, a similar appearance to those it gave to Erdogan. This led the Turkish president to feel he had the backing of the world leader he saw as his main competitor for influence in the region – and put Turkey and Turkey alone on the table in talks about the post-west, more assertive Gulf. It made for a compelling story: Turkey may be an ally, but it is not a Nato member and does not have the resources that Saudi Arabia has.
With Istanbul built for the thrill of liberal capitalism – the Grand Bazaar alone has 350 shops and 10,000 people – it felt a far-off land, entirely riven by divisions. Yet when it was the site of the Mecca terror attack last month, it immediately felt like an uncomfortable intersection: of a central power against an emerging nation that now feels the international community has little support in its struggles.