When protests against Iran’s theocratic Shiite regime erupted late last month, the reaction from the region’s two main Sunni powers couldn’t have been more different.

Saudi Arabia, which is the custodian of Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina and aspires to lead the entire Sunni world, quietly gloated over the unexpected troubles of its Iranian nemesis.

Saudi-run pan-Arab media brimmed with enthusiastic coverage of demonstrators who called for an end to the Islamic Republic and who challenged Iran’s involvement in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey, which—in Ottoman Empire times—controlled Mecca and Medina for much longer than the House of Saud, and which is unwilling to subordinate its interests to Riyadh’s, has taken the opposite side.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly called Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani to express Ankara’s support for Tehran’s handling of the protests. Pro-government media in Turkey went out of its way to depict Iranian demonstrations as an American and Israeli conspiracy—a theory later endorsed by Mr. Erdogan himself.

To many in the Middle East, this divergence once again highlighted the reality that any notion of a “Sunni bloc,” let alone one led by Riyadh, to counter Iran’s might in the region is fanciful at best.

While President Donald Trump seemed to endorse Saudi claims to regional leadership on his trip to Riyadh last year, the fact is that—among significant Sunni regional powers—only the United Arab Emirates is firmly aligning itself with Saudi policies.

The others—Turkey, Egypt and, of course, Saudi Arabia’s maverick neighbor, Qatar—are increasingly engaged in a complicated and multidimensional power struggle that has little to do with the Middle East’s sectarian divide.

Qatar, targeted by the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood last year, has turned to Iran for help in response. That coincided with a general warming of ties between Tehran and Qatar’s main Sunni ally, Turkey—where Mr. Erdogan is increasingly infuriated by the U.S. trial of his senior associates who are accused of using Turkey to circumvent American sanctions on Iran.

Despite generous Saudi aid, Egypt also isn’t eager to jump on the anti-Iranian bandwagon. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who ousted a Muslim Brotherhood government in a 2013 coup, is far more hostile to Mr. Erdogan—a vocal backer of Brotherhood causes—than to Iranian leaders. On Mr. Sisi’s watch, Cairo has also maintained warm ties with the Iranian-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria that Saudi Arabia had tried to help overthrow.

“Ultimately, it’s the geopolitical interests that dictate the actions of states in the region, not sectarian identities, even though these states may instrumentalize sectarian discourse,” said Bassel Salloukh, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. “As for Turkey, it doesn’t want to see a Saudi leadership of the Sunni world because Turkey has its own aspirations for that.”

There is even less common ground between Turkey and the U.A.E., a strident opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s also a country that competes with Turkey throughout the region—and in particular alongside the strategic maritime routes in the Horn of Africa, where both nations have established several military outposts and back rival proxies. It doesn’t help that many of Mr. Erdogan’s aides suspect the U.A.E. of involvement in the failed 2016 coup attempt against the Turkish president—something denied by Emirati officials.

“Ankara sees the U.A.E. as trying to act much more forcefully than the real influence it can have given their size, their power structure and their set of relationships,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and head of the Edam think tank in Istanbul. “U.A.E. is not Saudi, and the view in Ankara is that they are getting way ahead of themselves in trying to harm Turkey.”

Historical claims—and especially the legacy of the Ottoman Empire—help fuel this rivalry. One of the most unusual recent spats was between Mr. Erdogan and the foreign minister of the U.A.E., Abdullah bin Zayed.

The Emirati minister last month retweeted a post that accused Ottoman forces led by Fakhreddin Pasha of looting the holy city of Medina and abducting its Arab residents in 1916, during World War I—a widespread Arab view that clashes with Mr. Erdogan’s efforts to glorify the Ottoman age.

In response, Mr. Erdogan blasted “miserable people” making such “delirious” allegations. Then, he had the street on which the U.A.E. embassy is located in Ankara renamed after Fakhreddin Pasha.

Yaroslav Trofimov
Jan. 11, 2018


Confronting Iran Takes a Back Seat to Sunni Bickering

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