The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and the wider Muslim world in general, have undergone massive changes in recent decades. The rise and fall of numerous secular, Arab nationalist and religious movements has shifted the balance of power more than once since the Western colonial powers were forced to end direct rule over Muslim lands.
For much of the last century, one country— Saudi Arabia—has played a pivotal role in the region. Founded by an unlikely alliance of an absolute monarchy of Najdi Bedouins, and Wahhabi extremists, they were brought together to serve the strategic interests of British colonialists.
The Saudi kingdom was, and remains a dagger planted in the heart of the Islamic world. The monarchy, a corrupt clique that is unabashedly subservient to the United States, uses its control over the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah as collateral for its influence over much of the Ummah. To further its own soft power, the monarchy has always tried to obfuscate the difference between traditional Sunni Islam and the teachings of Wahhabism, and in fact has tried hard to lay claim to the position of “leadership” of the entire Sunni world.
That is not to say that there has not been resistance against this Saudi-Wahhabi coup. Most famous perhaps are the words of Egyptian President Jamal Abdel Nasser: “To liberate all of Jerusalem, the Arabs must first liberate Riyadh”. Starting with the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, a new wave of religiously-inspired anti-imperialist zeal swept the Muslim world.
The Sunni world itself saw a similar evolution, with organisations such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad emerging. Gradually, the Muslim Brotherhood (also known as al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn or Ikhwan for short), a more orthodox Sunni Islamic organisation that emerged in 1928, came to the forefront in the Sunni world.
The Muslim Brotherhood is an enigmatic group that throughout history has played both the role of opponent to Western imperialism as well as key ally to Western hegemonic designs. While it is hard to place the organisation as squarely in support or opposition to the Islamic Resistance in general, there are a few key elements that can be stated with certainty.
The Ikhwan are at present heavily supported by two Muslim countries: Turkey and Qatar. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees the Ikhwan as a key ally for its policies, and in fact is often seen using it to further Turkish ambitions in the Middle East, much to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia.
Erdogan’s presidency can be seen as a turning point in the history of modern Turkey. For the first time since the inception of the Turkish republic, a politician with an openly Islamic political profile is leading the country. Founded as a staunchly secular, aggressively nationalist state vehemently opposed to any public role for the Islamic faith, Turkey is changing fast with the AKP and Erdogan at the helm.
The change, however, should not be exaggerated. Erdogan still plays very much by the rules of the West that date back to the days of Mustafa Kemal. Turkey remains the sole Muslim country in NATO, and has still not completely abandoned the idea of joining the European Union. Its nationalist and irredentist policies towards its neighbours haven’t changed either, be it through aggressive rhetoric against Greece, the continued control of northern Cyprus, suppression of any public display of Kurdish identity, or relations with Armenia. The country also maintains open diplomatic and economic ties with the Zionist entity.
Nevertheless, change is definitely discernable in Turkey’s role. It has helped Ankara’s standing internationally, even if slowly. This is perhaps best expressed by the close alliance between Ankara and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Turkish-backed Ikhwan militias make up the bulk of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) remnants that still occupy parts of northern Syria and are involved in continuous conflict with Kurdish separatist forces. While Riyadh has also been involved in the war against Syria from the beginning of the conflict, there is a key difference between the two.
Saudi Arabia has been funding Wahhabi takfiri terrorist organisations, linked often to either al-Qaeda or Daesh. The aim was to destabilise and eventually destroy the Syrian government and thus remove a key component in the Axis of Resistance that runs from Iran to Palestine. Turkey, on the other hand, has far more tangible territorial goals in mind, corresponding with the neo-Ottoman ideology of Erdogan and his followers. Destruction of Syria is not the primary goal of Ankara. It is subsumed by the idea that cities like Aleppo should be brought under Turkish rule.
A consequence of this difference is that the Syrian government as well as its allies Iran and Russia have been far more successful in negotiating and finding common ground for compromise with Turkey than with Riyadh and its takfiri supporters.
While the strategic interests of Turkey and Saudi Arabia were generally aligned in Syria, a growing difference of opinion has become clear in other cases. When Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt launched a campaign to isolate and suffocate Qatar, Turkey took a leading role alongside Iran in defending the Gulf state. Turkish political, economic and moral support was key in ensuring that the Saudi blockade would fail in achieving its objectives. Turkish diplomatic and economic support for Qatar marks perhaps the first time in contemporary history that a government based in Sunni Islamic tradition has defied Saudi Arabia in such a bold manner.
When journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, Ankara refused to be part of the Saudi cover-up. Turkish intelligence operatives were crucial in exposing details of Khashoggi’s murder and the direct role played by high-ranking Saudi officials. In what may be called an historic occasion, the Saudi monarchy was forced to admit to its crime, not by one of its traditional enemies but by an assertive Sunni power.
In Libya, the increasingly complicated conflict has also highlighted key differences between Turkey and the Gulf monarchies. While the so-called Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli has received extensive backing from both Turkey and Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have thrown their weight behind the forces led by former general and self-appointed ‘field marshal’ Khalifa Haftar. The conflict in Libya perhaps best illustrates Turkey’s growing role on the world stage. Ankara, joined by Qatar, has directly challenged the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia by joining the fight against Haftar.
In Yemen, Turkey has been one of the main supporters of the local Ikhwan branch known as the Islah Party. While Islah has supported the Saudi-led invasion since its start in 2015, relations between Riyadh and the movement have been in steady decline. The continued Saudi ban on the Muslim Brotherhood and crackdown on its members and sympathisers have contributed to growing distrust. This was made even worse when Saudi forces arrested Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, an Islah preacher who had been one of the most vocal supporters of the Saudi invasion of Yemen.
Turkey, on the other hand, has offered a safe haven to Islah representatives as well as their wealth. Some Yemenis have even been granted Turkish citizenship, in return for substantial investments in the Turkish economy with money that was siphoned off from Yemen, often in shady ways.
The Turkish plan in Yemen seems to be paying off. The Islah Party, growing increasingly disillusioned with Riyadh and wary of Emirati support to Southern Yemeni separatist militias, has repeatedly turned to Turkey for aid. In some cases, this has even led to Islah representatives expressing open hostility to their former allies, and asking for Turkish aid to drive the invaders out of the area.
In general, the application of soft power seems to be one of Turkey’s main strengths in trying to expand its reach across the Muslim world. Turkey can’t rely on aggressive terrorist organisations as Saudi Arabia has done, nor has it been able to cultivate popular support and goodwill in the Levant in the way Iran has demonstrated. Ankara’s position is to support more orthodox Sunni movements in the Middle East, alongside any group sympathetic to the neo-Ottoman agenda.
The recent Turkish decision to turn the Hagia Sophia, former cathedral-turned-mosque that was forcibly secularised by Mustafa Kemal in 1935, back into a mosque, can be seen as a direct projection of Turkish soft power. More subtle is the decision to recite salutations on the Prophet (pbuh), his family and his companions in the opening ceremony in the newly annointed mosque. This act, perhaps hardly noticeable in traditional Islamic practice, is contrary to Wahhabi teachings that have for so long been presented as orthodox Sunnism.
The influence and power of Turkey in the region should not be exaggerated either. Turkey is not a regional powerhouse like Iran or Saudi Arabia, in terms of military power or support among the predominantly Arab population of the Middle East. Nor is it clear whether Turkey will prove to be a positive or negative factor regarding the Axis of Resistance, or the Islamic resistance movement in general. Turkey’s imperialist conduct in Syria, Iraq and Yemen cast doubt on some of its intentions.
However, in the grand scheme of things, it does seem increasingly likely that the Saudi claim to leadership of the Sunni world is fast dissipating. Turkey seems best positioned at this moment to seize this opportunity and lay claim to the title.