Saudi-Turkish relations hit a new low point this week after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman referred to Turkey as part of a “triangle of evil” alongside Iran and Islamic extremists.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia don’t like each other, and this has been true for decades. Turkey was the hated colonial power over the Saudis for centuries during which time the Ottomans claimed and controlled the Islamic holy sites, including Mecca. Now Turkey is establishing a new university to rival the great traditional Arab centers of learning on Islam, and Turkey’s president has made it clear that he sees himself as a major leader of the Muslim political world and faith in the Middle East.

Turkey’s expanding military influence is raising fears in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Ankara now has three military bases in the region—in Qatar, Somalia, and a possible naval base in Sudan, directly opposite Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea and a potential threat to Egypt. Many Arabs resent Turkey’s attempt to establish a neo-Ottoman influence in the region.

Turkey’s Islamist government is close to the Muslim Brotherhood and thus has very poor relations with Egypt and the UAE, two close Saudi allies. Turkey is using its ties with Qatar to weaken Saudi influence in the Gulf, boost its credentials with the Muslim Brotherhood, and encourage Iranian support for Turkey’s ambitions in Syria.President Erdogan sees himself as an alternative to traditional Saudi and Egyptian leadership in the region.

Against its own long-term interests, Turkey is allying with Iran to weaken the Kurds in Syria, keep them out of the peace process, and in effect strengthen the Syrian government. The Saudis have opposed the Syrian government for years, trying to diminish the growing influence of Iran and Syria in Lebanon, which was traditionally an old ally of Riyadh.

The Saudis see their struggle with Iran in existential terms, but see the Turks as accepting Iran’s greater influence in Baghdad and Damascus in exchange for Tehran’s help in crushing the Kurds.

Photo: Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.