The influential Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat, which belongs to Prince Faisal bin Salman (son of King Salman), Governor of Madinah, tore into Turkish President Recep Erdogan with a series of vicious attacks that brings to the fore the cracks in the politics of the Muslim Middle East following the failed coup in Turkey last Friday. On successive days, three Op-Eds have appeared, authored by two of the most authoritative establishment talkers in the Saudi media – Abdulrahman Al-Rashed (currently general manager of Al-Arabiya television and formerly editor-in-chief of the daily) and Eyad Abu Shakra (incumbent managing editor of the daily).
The first Op-Ed entitled Will Turkey Boycott the West? by Al-Rashed appeared on Tuesday in the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt in Turkey. Its message to Erdogan was two-fold: a) Do not annoy the West (read US); and, b) There will be dire consequences if Erdogan pressed for the extradition of the Islamist cleric Fetullah Gulen from the US.
Evidently, Erdogan ignored Al-Rashed’s advice and doomsday predictions and went ahead to allege a likely US role in the coup attempt and warn that Washington will be making a “big mistake” if Gulen is not extradited. On Thursday, Shakra and Al-Rashed in separate articles followed up with a scathing attack on Erdogan personally and his politics.
Shakra in his article titled About Erdogan and Turkey’s Coup Attempt condemned Erdogan for the crackdown on ‘Gulenists’ and all but cited Gulen as a torch bearer of political Islam as much as Erdogan claims himself to be. The article hinted that Gulen casts an appeal within the ruling party AKP. Shakra pointedly brought in former president and AKP’s co-founder Abdullah Gul and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu). He virtually advised a patch-up between Erdogan and Gulen.
Al-Rashed in a second article alleged that Erdogan is grandstanding on the ‘Arab Street’ and his fate cannot be any different from that of Abdel Gamal Nasser and Sadam Hussein. Worse still, he drew comparison with Imam Khomeini. His article They All Walked This Path also seems to suggest Saudi displeasure that Erdogan draws support from parts of the Arab world. Qatar — whose Emir is close to Erdogan?
What is it that is frightening the Saudi royal family? Prima facie, the disclosures by the famous Saudi whistleblower Mutjahid (who many suspect to be a dissenter within the House of Saud) to the effect that Gulen has strong links with Saudi Arabia and that the powerful deputy crown prince and defence minister Mohammed bin Salman was in the know of the Turkish coup seems to have some basis. There is indeed a tone of panic in the Saudi media attack on Erdogan.
According to Mutjahid, Mohammed bin Salman apparently suspects that the Turkish intelligence knows about the Saudi-UAE role in the attempted coup against Erdogan. (Curiously, according to reports, Turkish military attaché in Kuwait tried to flee to an unnamed western country from the Saudi airport of Dammam before being detained for involvement in the coup attempt.) The Saudi talkers have probably gone on the offensive as the best form of defence, fearing a retaliation by Erdogan.
More importantly, Saudis must be feeling frightened about the manner in which the coup attempt in Turkey was countered by Erdogan, who invoked ‘people’s power’. Shades of ‘Arab Spring’! This is the spectre that always haunted the Saudis – masses pouring out into the streets in their tens of thousands as the final arbiters of political power in a Muslim country. Worse still, this political tactic also leaps out of the manifesto of the Muslim Brotherhood, which poses an existential threat to the Saudi regime.
The point is, from the Saudi viewpoint, the most dangerous thing about Erdogan is not his ‘neo-Ottomanism’ but his close links with the Brothers for whose sake he even sacrificed Turkey’s state-to-state relations with the Egyptian regime of President Abdel Fattah- el-Sisi (who came to power through a Saudi-backed military coup).
Finally, the Saudis are big losers – next only to Israel – in the rapprochement between Turkey and Iran that is getting under way in regional politics. Erdogan told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a phone conversation on Tuesday that he is ready to work with Iran and Russia to restore regional peace. The Iranian official news agency quoted Erdogan as saying,
- Today, we are determined more than ever before to contribute to the solution of regional problems hand in hand with Iran and Russia and in cooperation with them.
Of course, such a realignment in the Muslim Middle East would profoundly impact the balance of forces in regional politics, virtually isolating Saudi Arabia.