Turkey's leadership in the Islamic world during the Jerusalem crisis and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's most recent trips to Sudan, Chad and Tunisia, revived an old ideological debate. Currently, politicians from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi media outlets continue to criticize Turkey by invoking the Ottoman Empire's colonial history.
Having attempted to discredit Fahreddin Pasha, an Ottoman military commander who defended Medina against British forces during World War I, certain groups in the Gulf are trying to drive a wedge between Turks and Arabs, and seek to equate Turkey with Iran. Alarmed by the Turkish president's popularity in the Arab street, the same people want to discredit Ankara by accusing it of neo-Ottomanism. Again, Turkey's efforts to reach out to African nations on the basis of equality and joint development has been described by the same media outlets and politicians as a new type of imperialism. For example, Sudan's decision to hand over Suakin Island to Turkey was considered a threat by Turkey against the national security of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. To be clear, it makes no sense to view Turkey's efforts to work more closely with African nations on defense and national security as some kind of military expansionism. After all, the world – and, in particular, the region – has begun to operate based on a new set of rules. As U.S. President Donald Trump's administration recently declared, there are now close links between economy and national security. In this regard, it is noteworthy that countries like the UAE have hired American companies to set up spy networks and operational units. It does not take a genius to figure out that those units will be used to carry out secret operations against countries that need to be disciplined. Therefore, the ties between stability, national security and trade have become considerably stronger in recent months.
A new line of criticism against Turkey was recently featured in a public statement by the Emirati foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, who claimed that "the Arab world has entered a blind alley and the solution is cooperation against the ambitions for the region from those against it." He added that "the Arab world will not be governed from Tehran or Ankara." To accomplish this goal, Gargash said all Arab countries ought to support a new Arab axis formed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This discourse, which seeks to fuel Arab nationalist fervor, is intended to liken Turkey to Iran – in line with certain U.S. media outlets, which claim that Turkey is becoming more like Iran. To be clear, the same people had pushed the narrative after the Qatar blockade that Turkey, Iran and Qatar had formed a new alliance in the Middle East. Needless to say, their purpose is to limit the influence of Turkey, which opposes the polarization that is part of an agenda to re-design the region.
For months, Turkey has been warning that regional polarization could lead to new disasters. In addition to cooperating with Iran, Ankara has strengthened ties with a number of countries, including Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Sudan, which have all been compelled to be part of the polarization. However, this balancing act is fundamentally at odds with the purposes of Gulf countries since it stops the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt from forcibly bringing Arabs into line.
In an attempt to limit Ankara's active role, certain groups have been complaining about Turkish expansionism and neo-Ottomanism. However, a recent statement from Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman, who said that his country is prepared to "pay the price" of cooperating with Turkey, shows that anti-Turkish discourse will not have the desired effects.
The nature of the Gulf-sponsored polarization campaign effectively renders their threats ineffective. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE would like to polarize the Middle East in order to promote unity against Iran and to further their own national interests. By contrast, their plan clearly hurts the interests of those countries that they would like to bring into line. In this sense, they made a historic mistake by issuing a list of unrealistic demands from Qatar. At the same time, they made a dishonorable proposal to the Palestinian government. Needless to say, Ankara foiled both of their efforts.As for neo-Ottomanism, today, all nation-states are committed to their sovereignty. No group would like to be ruled by another. Instead, all parties make decisions on the basis of their rational interests and the balance of power. Turkey's outreach efforts in Africa represent an effort to promote cooperation on the basis of stability, security and trade in a time when the next storm is brewing. Likewise, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım's most recent trip to Saudi Arabia was proof that Ankara wants to cooperate with Gulf countries rather than form an axis of their own. One thing should be clear – the people who claim that Turkey and Iran are on the same side actually hurt the interests of Gulf countries.