Leadership is an old and continuous tale in the media’s
imagination but leadership is a result and not a decision. Even before the
murder of Jamal Khashoggi, there has been talk about competition over
leadership. So is it truth or illusion, and what are its standards?
The concept of leadership in the Middle East includes plenty of imagination that’s cloned from the eras of empires and most of it is political and propagandist. There are standards in measuring the concept of power – there is the superpower, which is the US and the great power like Russia, China and the EU. It’s measured by military, economic, technological and cultural superiority and not just nuclear power or media exaggerations.
If we want to implement these standards in our region, we will realize there is a group of regional powers and not a single one that is superior. For example, military superiority alone is not enough. Israel is the strongest military and technological regional power but its area is small and besieged and it’s not a regional economic power.
Turkey’s area is large and it is a member in the NATO but like Iran it does not have the same language as the region’s countries and it has geopolitical restrictions that limits its influence, as we’ve seen its incapability in Syria’s war.
Iran is large and ambitious to assume leadership, and it has relied on power for 40 years. Today it’s a spreading power but it is the poorest country in the region. There are many heads in the Middle East and not a single leader and not a single leading nation.
The dream of leadership is what destroyed late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his project in one single test, the 1967 War, because it was a leadership that was built on propaganda.
What about Turkey and Saudi Arabia? Both countries have power elements: area, population, geography, massive resources, domestic stability and strength of the political regime. Despite that, I do not think there is a possibility of acceptance of the claim of supremacy and leadership in the region.
As for the Muslims’ leadership in the world, then this is a metaphorical expression. Spiritually, Saudi Arabia is the leader because it is where there are holy sites, which one billion Muslims visit for Hajj and where the qibla, the direction that should be faced when praying, are located. Turkey does not have anything sacred for Muslims.
On the economic level, Saudi Arabia is more influential. Turkey tried to be an economic power so it expanded from Iraq’s Kurdistan to Libya but it lost its investments in the Arab Spring wars.
It’s now trying to militarily expand at the expense of Qatar in the Red Sea and the Gulf, but we know this is a temporary situation and after few years, Doha will lapse after spending its savings and Turkey will withdraw. Saudi Arabia has politically tried to build fronts but it also suffered and was incapable of uniting the ranks of the group that supports it.
Unlike Iran and Turkey, the Saudi foreign policy is based on a defensive and not an offensive concept. It builds a complicated network of alliances and via several means, such as the alliance of war in Yemen, an alliance to confront Saddam following his invasion of Kuwait and an alliance to confront Iran today.
I think no regional power can achieve leadership no matter how armed to the teeth it is and no matter how hungry it is for power and expansion, like Iran is. The cost is very high and it may cause the collapse of the state.
This is what happened to the regime of Saddam Hussein who was obsessed with power and leadership. Saddam spent all his years in power and losing wars. Hence, bets on the region’s leadership are nothing more than media fabrications or ignorant ambitions.
Apart from what is being written in the media, there is no real Turkish-Saudi competition over leadership. There is competition over some issues and consensus over other issues, temporarily and pending the interactions of the Khashoggi case. This is what Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meant when he said someone was trying to create a rift with Turkey.
Riyadh’s policy is defensive to protect its borders and its regional surrounding and is not competitive with Turkey. This explains why most of Riyadh’s focus is directed toward confronting Iran in hopes the latter’s regime abandons its hostile and expansive policy or it is besieged and its threats on the kingdom and the region are diminished.
Real leadership is a final result and not a presidential decision, and it’s reflected by the state’s capability of economic, scientific, technological, industrial, military, cultural and diplomatic supremacy.
No country can succeed alone if its successes do not also reach the region. And as the prince said: Dubai is a model, and Saudi Arabia or Egypt lift the entire region. Leaderships will thus remain media legends.