The Turkey UAE fight shows that President Erdogan is isolating Turkey, even while he clings to the hope of leading the Islamic world. He started his leadership of the country by scuttling a decades-long alliance with Israel that had brought stability to the entire region. He followed up by persecuting Turkish liberals and minorities, and breaking the back of the army and the formerly professional civil service.
It is about … where Turkey is headed under Erdogan’s command, and about who will lead the world’s one billion Muslims.
Erdogan’s favorite bête noire is Fethullah Gulen, once his ally and now Turkey’s most wanted man. Erdogan has accused Gulen of fomenting coup attempts against him on several occasions. In the most recent crackdown, he fired and jailed thousands of civil servants, including police, prosecutors and security services on the pretext that they were secret Gulenist coup plotters.
Erdogan Choosing Extremists and Shi’a Over Sunni Majority
President Erdogan’s record on human rights is so dismal that even French President Macron told him last week that EU membership will never be an option during his rule. His intransigence has driven a wedge between Turkey and NATO, as well as between Turkey and most of its Arab allies. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, once allies of Turkey, are now closer to their historic enemy, Israel, than to Turkey. They are disgusted by Erdogan’s policy of supporting (Shi’a) Iranian allies such as Qatar and Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, and his two-faced policy toward the war on ISIS.
The Undiplomatic Tweet
The latest diplomatic row is with the United Arab Emirates. The Turkish government just announced that it is renaming the street on which the UAE embassy is located, to Fahreddin Pasha Street. Renaming the street is an act of revenge for a tweet – or a retweet, to be exact – by the UAE Foreign Minister that insulted an Ottoman official and Erdogan’s ancestors.
“Those were the ancestors of Erdogan and this is the history that they have with Arab Muslims.”
Granted, in this case, the provocation was initiated by the UAE. But Erdogan’s response was asymmetric and unbalanced. A Twitter user calling himself Ali Al Iraqi – Ali The Iraqi, who claimed to be an Iraqi dentist living in Germany – tweeted something insulting Fahruddin Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Medina during World War I. He said that Fahruddin “committed a crime against the people of Medina by stealing their money, kidnapping them and putting them on trains that took them to Syria and Istanbul.” He then added, “Those were the ancestors of Erdogan and this is the history that they have with Arab Muslims.”
The UAE foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, retweeted the offending comment. Erdogan reacted with fury in a speech, when he mentioned the tweet and then told al-Nahyan vicariously, “Know your place! It means you do not know this country, you do not know Erdogan, you do not know about Erdogan’s ancestors. When Fahreddin Pasha was protecting Medina… where were your ancestors?”
Erdogan followed up the next day, saying the Emirati minister was “ill-brought up” and “too spoiled by oil and money.” Later that day the government announced the name change for the embassy’s street. Ankara’s mayor tweeted, “As of now, the embassy’s address will feature on official correspondence as Defender of Medina Street, Fahreddin Pasha Road. Good luck with it.”
Symbol of Turkish Nationalism
It is no accident that the Turks were offended. Fahruddin Pasha is revered in Turkey as one of the great heroes of the last days of the Ottoman Empire. When the Young Turks declared an alliance with the Central Powers in World War I, the French and British initiated a rearguard action against the Ottomans by stoking nationalist fervor among the Arab tribes in the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula.
The Arab Revolt was led by about 100 British and French officers, including the famous T.E. Lawrence, or “Lawrence of Arabia.”
The Arab Revolt was organized, funded, and supplied by about 100 British and French officers, including the famous T.E. Lawrence, or “Lawrence of Arabia.” As most of the region fell to Entente (Allied) control, the city of Medina held out stubbornly under the governorship of Fahruddin. His refusal to surrender actually helped the Allied forces, since they simply took over the rest of the region, and forced the Ottomans to maintain the railway and supply lines to Medina diverting strength from other battles.
Turkey-UAE Fight Not About the Past
For an Arab foreign minister, a member of his country’s ruling family, all this is well known. His decision to retweet the statement was almost certainly purposive, a reaction to Erdogan’s decision to turn his back on his Arab Sunni allies in favor of the extreme elements in the Islamic world. This is not an argument over a tweet, or over an insult to a figure from a century ago. It is about where Erdogan will look for allies to ease his isolation, where Turkey is headed under Erdogan’s command, and about who will lead the world’s one billion Muslims.