Realignment in the Middle East and Balkans

Robert Nesimi

Two events that took place last week, seemingly unimportant, signaled a new moment in the Middle East. First, a few Arab channels and Arab states forbid the airing of Turkish TV shows. A few days later the Saudi crown-prince, Mohammad bin Salman, declared that Turkey is a part of the “axis of evil”, together with Iran and Russia. Both are of course strongly related. They give a strong signal that the Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, is putting an end to its two-decade flirt with Turkey, which is more and more seen as an enemy, as it hasn’t been since the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

It is of course naive to think that these movements are accidental. Mohamad Bin Salman, largely known as MBS, is a new figure in the Arab political scene, and is fast becoming one of its most important actors. Breaking with a half-century of Saudi tradition, he became crown-prince even at the young age of 32. In reality he is the true ruler of Saudi Arabia. He became renowned worldwide last year when he arrested a number of Saudi princes and dignitaries, ostensibly for corruption. He is seen as the hope and future of the Arab world, a statesmen that promises deep economic, social and cultural reforms, and the man who will curtail the power of Saudi clerics, promising to return the country to a more traditional and moderate form of Islam. What is more important he has deep ties and the full backing of the American administration, and was last week in a high-profile visit to Great Britain. That means that his positions vis-a-vis Turkey, Iran and Russia are almost certainly coordinated with the wester foreign policy and Arab allies in the region.

Naturally this is not something new, as much as it is a continuation of the geopolitical redefining of the Middle East, in a way going on since the Cold War. The Arab Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and followed by Jordan and Gulf states, are once again taking a pro-western stance. The biggest difference is of course Turkey. During the Cold War it was oriented toward the West and did not show much interest in the Middle East. But then the first years of Erdogan’s rule marked an opening toward the Arab world, inspired by Davutoglu’s “zero problems with neighbors’” policy. Lately, though, that policy seems abandoned or downright defeated. Case after case Turkey finds itself in conflict with its erstwhile western partners and Arab allies. Nominally a member of the wester bloc under NATO, its positions seem more and more in line with NATO’s main enemies in the region, Russia and Iran. As events are unfolding, it really seems a part of this axis, opposed to the pro-western, pro-NATO axis. Events in Syria may be just the catalyst to speed these tendencies up, but the latest anti-Turkish moves by Arab states and MBS’s harsh rhetoric show how far and deep things have gone.

These geopolitical movements are not irrelevant to the Balkans either. The important geopolitical actors are the same here as in the Middle East. During the last decade, it seems that time has gone a hundred years back in the Balkans, geopolitically speaking, to a time when the region was a battleground between Russian, Turkish and Western influence, then represented by Austro-Hungary. The same influences are once again alive now, with pro-Western aspirations represented by the desire to integrate the region into NATO and EU. Exactly for these reasons these aspirations are opposed by the other two factors, Russia and Turkey (or at least Putin and Erdogan), since it would certainly aggravate their position and influence here.

In this context it is no accident that the loudest players that oppose a deal with Greece, followed by integration of Macedonia and the region in Euro-Atlantic structures, are precisely Russia and Turkey. Precisely in this line we should see their “support” for Macedonia to protect its name since justice is on its side. It is obvious that neither Russia, nor Turkey, care about the Macedonian nation and the name issue, as much as they are troubled by a normalization of relations with Greece and stabilization of the region as a whole. Just like in the Middle East, Russia and Turkey, at least under Putin and Erdogan, are connected by their opposition to western influence, and similar to the Middle East they find themselves on the same side, against western political and security structures.

It is of course possible that these conflictual geopolitical trends change again, as has often happened in the past. But that seems less and less likely in the Russian case, since it is becoming clear that Russia will continue to be ruled by Putin with his fundamentally anti-Western worldview. The true enigma is Turkey under Erdogan. Will it keep up its anti-Western posture of late, or return to the bloc where it spend the Cold War, finally conscious that its true historic existential threat has been and will be Russia? This factor will have to determine our future posture toward Turkey; will we continue to see it as an ally and strategic partner, or will be forced to see it as a member of an antagonistic bloc.