Bitter Frenemies

The Not-Quite-Alliance Between Saudi Arabia and Turkey

Prince Saud Al Faisal, left, visited Turkey's foreign minister in Ankara in January. (Courtesy Reuters)

Last month, Saudi Arabia rolled out the red carpet for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The visit was yet another example of the degree to which relations between the two countries have improved in recent years.

Historically, the two nations have not been friendly, with economic relations only developing  in the 1970s. Turkey needed Saudi Arabia's oil. For its part, Saudi Arabia needed Turkey's huge construction sector to build its modern cities. In the 1990s, the arms-length relationship grew more distant. After the Persian Gulf War, Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Syria, banded together in hopes of creating a new Arab order. Damascus, no ally of Ankara at the time, was able to frame many of its narrow fights with Turkey as pan-Arab concerns. Down the Euphrates from Turkey, for example, Syria was locked in constant argument with the Turkish government over how much water it would allow to flow downstream. Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria even launched a successful campaign to end World Bank funding for Turkey's dam projects until Ankara signed a water agreement with the states below it. 

The United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003 changed all that. The toppling of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent empowerment of Iraqi Shias instilled a fear in the kingdom that Saudi's own Shia population would agitate for change. Beyond that, Riyadh believed that Iran -- through its activities in Iraq, its alliance with Syria, its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and its nascent nuclear program -- was attempting to become a regional hegemon. In response, Riyadh began building alliances with states that shared its outlook, a "Sunni axis," so to speak, to combat the "Shia arc."

Jordan and Egypt were natural fits. These predominantly Sunni countries were equally concerned with rising Iranian influence in the Levant and were determined to counter what they perceived as Tehran's outsized influence in the region. Yet Riyadh went

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