Turkey has blocked more than a dozen Saudi and Emirati news websites in a growing tit-for-tat confrontation following the ban on Turkish state media websites by Riyadh and continuing tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The two countries are battling for influence and strategic power in the Middle East through surrogate governments and opposition groups in other countries.
Websites of the Saudi and UAE news agencies, SPA and WAM, as well as sites of the Al Arabiya news channel, the Al Hayat newspaper and other outlets from the two countries were no longer accessible from Turkey on April 20. Messages posted on the websites said theywere blocked as a “protection measure” following a court decision in Ankara.
The blocked websites included the Turkish-language edition of the British newspaper The Independent, which has a Saudi investor, although the site was not known for having a hostile editorial policy towards Ankara. The website of The Independent’s English-language edition was not affected by the Turkish ban.
Turkish authorities did not immediately respond to a request to comment on why the websites had been blocked, but Turkey’s staterun Anadolu news agency and public broadcaster TRT reported last week that access to their websites had been blocked by Saudi Arabia.
Turkey, a close ally of Qatar, leads a foreign policy perceived by Saudi Arabia as antagonistic to its interests. Both Ankara and Doha maintain close relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken sides in favour of Qatar in its long-running dispute with the Saudi-led Arab quartet, which includes the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. He has also strengthened Ankara’s military relations with Doha by announcing the completion of a second Turkish army base where hundreds of Turkish troops are reportedly stationed.
By cultivating influence among Brotherhood-affiliated Islamist groups, Erdogan strives to project himself as the leader of the Muslim Sunni world and revive Turkey’s Ottoman legacy. Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo consider the Brotherhood a “terrorist organisation.”
Another hot spot where regional competition has surfaced is Libya, where Turkey has been supporting the Government of National Accord (GNA) against Libyan National
Army (LNA) troops loyal to FieldMarshal Khalifa Haftar. Ankara has announced the delivery of military equipment and the dispatching of mercenaries from Syria to Libya.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in 2018 accused Turkey of being part of a “triangle of evil,” together with Iran and the Brotherhood. Later
that year, the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the premises of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul sent relations between Ankara and Riyadh to a new low as Turkey accused the Saudi leadership of involvement in the murder. Last month, a Turkish prosecutor indicted 20 suspects in the case.
Erdogan’s critics see the ban on foreign websites as yet another move to silence dissonant voices at home and abroad. “In times of war or national crisis, Turkey has often stepped up its regular intimidation and prosecution of people for criticising government policies on social media,” wrote US rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch earlier this month.