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A New Era in Turkish-Saudi Relations?

Turkey and Saudi Arabia had largely inactive relations before Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in Ankara in 2002.  Previous secular and western-oriented Turkish governments had largely ignored the Middle East until then. The Erdogan government took early initiatives to improve relations with the region. As a result, bilateral relations with all regional countries improved in Erdogan’s early years. Ties with Saudi Arabia, the region’s largest player, especially grew to an unprecedented level.

Deterioration of Saudi-Turkish Relations

However, following the 2011 Arab Spring, Turkey and Saudi Arabia went in different directions due to their ideological differences over the wave of protests that rocked the Arab World. The Arab Spring revolutions made Saudi leaders, like other Middle Eastern authoritarian governments, nervous about the stability of their rule. For its part, the Erdogan government remained undecided at the beginning but then began to support the demonstrations filling the streets of Arab capitals, as they mirrored Turkish conservatives’ own struggle against authoritarianism. Though the Arab Spring issue did provoke a break between Riyadh and Ankara, Turkish-Saudi relations did not grow truly hostile until Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt blockaded Qatar in June 2017. Turkey openly breached the blockade from almost the very moment of its inception, sending troops to Qatar to deter the blockading Quartet from a likely invasion. The four states, in turn, perceived this as an act of hostility by Turkey.

However, the two countries’ relations did not hit their nadir until Saudi agents killed Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.   The fact that the brutal murder took place in Turkey’s largest and most historic city infuriated the Turkish government; it regarded the incident as a Saudi plan to humiliate Turkey and a message to Arab dissident expatriates living in Turkey that the country was not safe for them. In response to the Saudi action, Turkish authorities released an audio recording of the murder and publicly accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) of ordering it — actions that severely damaged the rising prince’s public image in the Western world and provoked Saudi rage against Erdogan.

After the fallout from the Khashoggi incident, diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey came to a virtual standstill until Saudi Arabia and the other Quartet members lifted the blockade of Qatar in January 2021. Since then, the Turkish government has pushed to repair its relationships with all regional states, an apparent end to Ankara’s ‘precious loneliness era’ as described by some Turkish media outlets. Before Erdogan’s visit to Riyadh in April 2022, Turkey has to a large extent managed to restore its relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and even Israel. Turkey’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia is, therefore, best understood as part of an ongoing process in the country’s Middle East foreign policy. In that sense, mending relations with Saudi Arabia is part of a larger process to recover Turkey’s standing in the region; Riyadh is one of many potential prizes.

Turkey’s decision in early April to suspend its prosecution of Khashoggi’s accused murderers and to transfer the trial to Saudi Arabia, removed the final stumbling block to improved Turkish-Saudi ties. Human rights organizations criticized Turkey for this decision, but Ankara’s defenders have argued that the move had to be done for the sake of Turkey’s interests. Ankara has also recalled the rest of the world’s reticence to intervene against MBS during the aftermath of the Khashoggi affair. When the Turkish government called for international support after the murder, only a handful of human rights groups and a few countries took action against Saudis. The United States, led at the time by Donald Trump, was reluctant to take strong measures against MBS because Trump was more interested in Saudi investments and arms purchases from the United States.  Even when the Trump administration did respond, the official U.S. statement amounted to little more than a weak condemnation.

What Turkey Gets

Turkey expects to reap substantial economic benefits from its repaired relationship with Saudi Arabia. After the Khashoggi incident, Saudi Arabia imposed an undeclared boycott on Turkish goods, causing Turkey’s exports to Saudi Arabia to plummet by 90 percent in 2021. However, relations had already begun to improve prior to Erdogan’s visit with exports increasing by 25.3 percent in the first quarter of 2022. Erdogan’s critics accused him of visiting MBS to get help for a sagging economy and to get campaign contributions. It is true that normalized relations will boost trade between Ankara and Riyadh but that will not make a significant change to the Turkish economy, meaning it will have minimal effects on the upcoming elections in Turkey.  Inflation has hurt the Turkish population, but the Turkish-Saudi currency swap with the Saudi Central Bank or Saudi foreign direct investment (FDI) within Turkey, while valuable in the long-term, will not end Turkey’s current economic crisis. On the other hand, these efforts may have stabilized the Turkish lira after its steep fall in value against the US dollar. Of note, the Turkish central bank has $120 billion in its reserves, meaning that a default is not imminent.

Second, Turkey and Saudi Arabia need each other in regional and international politics. Saudi Arabia is locked in a proxy war with Iran through the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Turkey has good relations with Tehran, allowing it to mediate between the two antagonists if needed. In case negotiations fail or Ankara cannot do any brokerage, Turkey could also help to train the Saudi army and equip it with Turkish-made weapons, particularly the highly effective “Bayraktar” drones, which Riyadh might need to deter increasing threats from Iranian drones and missiles.

Third, to meet growing external demand, Saudi-Turkish military relations will probably increase. Erdogan has already hinted that his government expects Riyadh to invest in the Turkish defense industry. We should not be surprised to hear soon that Saudi Arabia will start to purchase Turkish weapons or participate in joint defense projects.

Meanwhile, contrary to many foreign analysts’ views, it is not likely that the Saudi government will ask Turkish troops to withdraw from Qatar. The Turkish battalion could have been seen as a threat to Riyadh’s interests during the blockade. However, after Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have mended their relationship, Riyadh should probably not find the Turkish soldiers’ presence objectionable, thus removing an obstacle to Saudi-Turkish defense collaboration.

What Saudi Arabia Gets

Good ties with Turkey are also likely to benefit MBS. After the Khashoggi incident ruined his burgeoning image as a pro-Western reformist, he must break the isolation from the world by repairing Saudi Arabia’s relations with other countries, particularly those in the region. Turkey’s decision to close the Khashoggi case means its abandonment and thus will likely help improve the crown prince’s image. Besides its problems with other regional powers, Riyadh has been estranged from the Biden administration and other Western states as well. MBS is in urgent need of friends, and cannot ignore the potential for friendship with Turkey, a regional power.

Overall, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have much to gain from a strong political and commercial relationship. The original reasons for the two countries’ mutual animosity—such as the Arab Spring, the blockade of Qatar, and the Khashoggi case—no longer exist in either leader’s calculations. Moreover, both states share some common and unrelated problems, which could be solved through collaboration rather than contention. We should expect to see Ankara and Riyadh try to avoid threatening each other’s interests, but to act carefully in bilateral relations. The lessons learned in the last decade have proven that rifts only exacerbate relations and damage the interests of both states.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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İbrahim Karataş is an Associate Professor in International Relations, based in Istanbul, Turkey. He writes columns for Turkey’s Daily Sabah and Yeni Akit dailies and has written more than 30 academic articles and books.

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