Turkey's Yemen Dilemma

Why Ankara Joined the Saudi Campaign Against the Houthis

Houthi fighters on patrol outside Sanaa, March 2015. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a trip to Riyadh to meet with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. The meeting, which took place behind closed doors, seemed to have planted the seeds for a breakthrough: three weeks later, Turkey expressed its support for the Saudi-led mission in Yemen. In doing so, it formally approved Riyadh’s air campaign against the Houthis, followers of the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam who have swept across that country’s northwest with the backing of certain Yemeni military factions. 

The news fed speculation that Ankara was ready to more openly enter the region’s sectarian strife. Some observers concluded that Turkey was now part of the Saudi-led Sunni axis and was ready to publicly challenge Iran, which has given some support to the Houthis. There might be some ground to these assertions: Erdogan has since explicitly linked the Houthis’ rise to Iranian encouragement and called on “Iran and the terrorist groups” to withdraw from Yemen. Still, conclusions of that sort are far too simplistic, failing to capture either the schisms that continue to characterize the Saudi-Turkish relationship or the pragmatism that lies at its core. 

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Saudi Arabia's King Salman, March 2015 Saudi Press Agency

True, Turkey’s decision to join the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis stems from its overarching interest in strengthening ties with the new Saudi leadership. In setting that goal, Erdogan is seeking to mend some fences. Although Ankara has traditionally pursued a deferential policy toward Riyadh—most recently during the Kingdom’s deployment of troops in Bahrain—the two sides have lately found themselves at odds more often than not. Among their main points of contention were the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (which Turkey supports and Saudi Arabia doesn’t) and, more broadly, the future of political Islam in the Arab world. 

After the start of the Arab revolts, Turkey positioned itself as a champion of democratic change. In 2012, Ahmet Davutoglu—

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