The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

To avoid getting caught in an awkward tug-of-war between the Saudis and the Turks, the Balkans should double their efforts in joining the European Union.

In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist, and dissident was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Various conflicting narratives emerged in the wake of Khashoggi’s death. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Khashoggi was murdered at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Khashoggi, a former Washington Post columnist, was highly critical of the regime’s human rights record. With the irony not lost on him, Mohammed bin Salman ordered the removal of the obstacle that threatened the rehabilitation of the kingdom’s international image. Fortunately, murdering anyone who stands in the way of your ambitions isn’t taken too lightly these days. As an extrajudicial killing on Turkish soil, the incident exacerbated relations with Ankara which had been deteriorating since the Arab Spring protests. With the Middle East and North Africa firmly in one sphere of influence or the other, regional powers have begun to look to the Balkans as a new frontier.

Soft power in the form of religious support has been the hallmark of the Turkish-Saudi rivalry in the Balkans. Ankara hopes to invoke a shared cultural and historical identity as a region formerly ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Alternatively, Riyadh seeks to legitimize its presence as the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. However, Turkey’s moderate Sunnism is more closely linked to the region’s Muslims.

In Bulgaria, for instance, the Ottoman legacy still resonates amongst the Muslim minority. The Diyanet, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, has emerged as an institution for soft power designed to patronize Sunnism. The Diyanet finances the construction of mosques, promotes Turkish language courses, and provides training for local religious leaders. Moreover, Ankara has also focused on reviving the shared cultural and religious heritage through the preservation of Ottoman relics. Institutions such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, Türkiye Scholarships, and the Yunus Emre Institute emerged in response to Turkey’s geopolitical campaign. Turkey’s renewed religious interest in the Balkans comes with the rise of the Saudi presence.

As the Saudi government pursues identical avenues for soft power projection, the question of who has the edge is still not entirely clear. The kingdom has also financed the construction of mosques, sponsored religious endowments, and patronized religious foundations, but the Balkans are wearier of Wahhabism, the kingdom’s radical branch of Islam.

Both countries occupy a unique position in the Balkans. While Riyadh seeks to leverage its oil reserves to promote Wahhabism, Mohammed bin Salman’s motivations extend beyond the Islamic factor. While corruption, unemployment, and poverty may discourage investment, the Saudis are no strangers to such issues. Food security has been a major priority for the Saudis, and the region represents a means of securing agricultural production while simultaneously shoring up some influence and economic dependence. Investments in the agricultural sector have been steadily growing, and as the kingdom seeks to diversify its economy, Saudi companies have been trying to establish a robust economic presence in the arms, hospitality, and real estate sectors.

The Saudi-based Al Shiddi Group has emerged as a prominent player in this regard. As one of the kingdom’s largest investment and development companies, Al Shiddi has undertaken strategic investments to ensure economic dependency.

However, the Turks have not been lacking in this regard either. Turkish investments often focus on similar industries, yet Ankara’s geographic and economic proximity to the Balkans has yielded more fruitful results. Kosovo’s Pristina airport, owned and managed by Limak Holding, a Turkish investment conglomerate, is scheduled to undergo extensive redevelopment. At the same time, Limak helped privatize the Kosovo Energy Corporation and the Post and Telecommunication of Kosovo.

Finance and religion are only one part of the puzzle. What Riyadh doesn’t have is NATO. As a NATO member, Ankara is uniquely situated to leverage its geopolitical standing vis-à-vis the Balkans to support the nomination of potential candidates.

The ethnoreligious diversity of the Balkans has undoubtedly contributed to their vulnerability. The region is highly susceptible to the geopolitical ambitions of a variety of actors where their interests often intersect. In addition to the Russians and the Chinese, the Saudis, the Turks, and to a lesser extent, the Gulf states and the Iranians, are looking to new regions to pursue their national interests. If the Balkans don’t intend to be caught in the crossfire, the EU is their only hope. The expansion would firmly cement the Western Balkans into a Euro-Atlantic sphere of influence where lofty promises from Riyadh or Ankara would no longer be attractive.

Muhanna Al Lawati is a recent University of Toronto graduate currently pursuing a Master’s degree in international history and politics at the Geneva Graduate Institute. His research focuses on the history of Anglo-American foreign policy competition in the Persian Gulf and its impact on the formation of the Persian Gulf monarchies. He currently works for the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the UNOG. In his spare time, Muhanna enjoys ranking Quentin Tarantino films, reading, and boxing.