Today, the Middle East is in the stage of continuing geopolitical transformation: the «concert of the Arab powers» ​​(Syria – Libya – Iraq – Egypt), characteristic of the second half of the 20th century, was replaced by the alliance of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, and the complex confrontation by formula «Moscow – Washington» by the end of the 2010s. moved to the «Washington-Beijing» format.

However, if the above tendencies can still be regarded as a kind of continuation of the Cold War (albeit with new poles of power), some events directly speak of a complex transition of the region to a multipolarity regime, not limited by an ideological framework. In particular, countries, which were previously limitedly involved in the regional struggle, are gaining strength. Nevertheless, none of them expresses a clear desire to become a single hegemon – rather, on the contrary, the stake is placed on the formation of a flexible system of subregional alliances.

The most consistent adherent of such a strategy is Turkey. For a long time, Ankara pursued a rather sluggish policy in the Middle East, more focused on the EU, while the room for maneuver in relations with Arab states was extremely insignificant. However, in recent years, the government of Recep Erdogan has comprehensively revised regional priorities. As a result, at the moment Turkey is not only building up its military influence in the Mediterranean and Red Sea region (within the framework of the «Mavi Vatan» and «Strategic Depth» doctrines), but is also actively establishing diplomatic contacts with Arab countries.

Another round of «diplomatic leaps» came in December 2021, when the Turkish President arrived in Doha and met with the Emir of Qatar. The meeting took place in a closed mode for the press and lasted 2 hours. It resulted in the signing of several agreements important for Turkey, as well as confirmation of intentions to develop bilateral cooperation. A rather transparent allusion to the importance of Ankara for Doha was the fact that the Turkish president received much more attention from the Qatari emir than the Saudi crown prince, who was also on a state visit to the capital of Qatar. Against this background, experts point out that, in addition to the already existing «Shiite Pole» (Iran and its loyal political forces in the Middle East) and the mobile alliance «Abraham Accords +1» (UAE, Israel and Saudi Arabia), a third alliance has been formed (Qatar and Turkey), which has already received the name «Third Axis» in the region’s media. The presence of so many independent (and, more importantly, mutually recognized) regional poles of power indicates that the security system being constructed in the region will continue to develop in the mainstream of multipolarity, and, consequently, in an atmosphere of strong competition (since all three poles have approximately equal forces).

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Against this background, the complex relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia are revealed in a different way. Despite the fact that Riyadh is extremely reluctant to interact with Ankara on major regional issues (and, moreover, does not miss the opportunity to reproach the Saudis for political inconsistency), the Royal house is in fact increasingly sending signals to Turkey about its readiness to restore trust in relations – especially against the background of a gradual withdrawal from speculation on the topic of historical «pain points», which began after the signing of the «Abraham Accords» in 2020. On the other hand, Riyadh and Ankara have too wide disagreements on the regional balance of power – their interests are in close contact in Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Iraq. And, if the clinch in the Eastern Mediterranean region does not attract as much attention as it did a year or two ago, then the Red Sea region, on the contrary, is in the focus of confrontation.

A series of internal problems (economic crisis, COVID-19 pandemic, disagreements between political forces) prevented Ankara from continuing its active expansion into the Red Sea region – although in the past two years President Erdogan has carried out several successful political combinations that made it possible to strengthen contacts with Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, as well as reduce the degree of confrontation with Egypt. In turn, Riyadh has taken a number of countermeasures designed to neutralize Turkish influence in the region. And, perhaps, the most effective measure should be considered the creation in 2020 of the Council of Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Jordan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia). Despite the fact that the Council is rather passive and practically does not participate in regional processes, it serves as a natural counterweight. In this case, the leading position of Saudi Arabia in the Council signals the existence of Riyadh’s «unshakable interests» in the delineated zone, as well as its readiness to take decisive measures to maintain the current balance of power.

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It is noteworthy that the initiative of Saudi Arabia is supported by the United States, which is interested in preserving (albeit in an embryonic state) self-governing regional security structures, which Donald Trump insisted on creating. In addition, Riyadh’s leadership in the Red Sea region is also seen as a guarantee of safe navigation in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Suez Canal.

In turn, Turkish strategists are fully aware of the negative effect of the further rapprochement of the Arab states within the Council. The main risk is that overcoming the traditional suspicion between the powers that have entered the Council (in particular, between Ethiopia, Egypt and the Sudan) prevents Ankara from gaining full access to the Horn of Africa region, where the country has long-term political and economic interests. In addition, this «imbalance», in fact, nullifies all previous efforts of Turkey to build up a direct (deployment of contingents) and indirect (participation in the formation of the military elite, supply of weapons, sending advisers) military presence, depriving it of its key trump card – the lack of an alternative strong Arab power. In this regard, Ankara will most likely try to play on the remaining contradictions – for example, to increase its participation in the settlement of the conflict in Ethiopia.

On the other hand, Riyadh is unlikely to seriously «squeeze» its opponent. Saudi strategists are well aware that the systemic rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia (albeit very limited at first) will seriously change the balance of power in the region in favor of the Kingdom and seriously weaken Iran’s position. In turn, the Saudis can use the emerging «Third Axis» (in such a situation it has no conflict of interest with Riyadh) as an argument in the Iranian-Saudi talks and thereby force Tehran to make concessions on key regional issues. Such an alliance of the two leading forces poses a particularly great threat in Yemen – the Islamic party «Al-Islah», supported by Turkey, in alliance with the Saudi coalition, will force the pro-Iranian forces to fight on several fronts at once, which will complicate their situation and force Iran to inject more funds to support its proxy. However, this option is seen as too dangerous for Riyadh, since Ankara does not have big historical claims to Tehran (much more conflict is observed in interaction with Jerusalem), so that the strengthening of the Turks can have difficultly predictable consequences for the regional balance of power.

In addition, it should be noted that against the background of events taking place in the political sphere, disagreements in spiritual matters are aggravated. If the Saudi and Iranian visions of the future of the global Islamic world are fairly easy to differentiate (since the countries belong to different branches of Islam), then the Turkey factor makes the configuration of the system more complicated. Despite the fact that most experts call Erdogan’s attempt to challenge the dominant position of Riyadh in the Islamic world as a failure (since Turkey managed to gain influence mainly in Muslim countries that are in the «lagging» echelon, while most large countries remained loyal to the Saudi house), an important achievement has been the formulation of a «compromise vision» that implies the possibility of reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites. Despite the fact that such a concept sounds somewhat utopian, the world Ummah took such an initiative mostly positively. However, whether Erdogan will be able to profitably play this card in the near future remains a mystery.

Thus, we can summarize that Turkey has taken a fairly strong position in the current configuration of the security system in the Middle East. With the passage of time, Ankara has a better sense of the intricacies of regional policy and increasingly refrains from harsh and rash decisions. In parallel with this, the importance of long-term political investments is growing, which do not pay off immediately, but can bring big dividends to Turkey in the future. In fact, further strengthening of Ankara’s positions in the Middle East (and, first of all, in the Arab world) will go through the formation of flexible bilateral (less often multilateral) alliances, adapted to the solution of a specific political task. However, in the face of great mistrust between Ankara and Riyadh, the effectiveness of such a strategy will remain rather severely limited.

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