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Prospects for Saudi-Turkey Rapprochement

On September 23, Turkey congratulated Saudi Arabia on the 91st anniversary of Saudi National Day. “It is my sincere wish,” said Mustafa Şentop, the Speaker of Turkey’s Parliament, in a letter to his Saudi counterpart, “to improve our inter-parliamentary relations with Saudi Arabia, with which we have common historical and cultural ties.”

Prior to this statement, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu confirmed that talks to improve relations with Saudi Arabia are still ongoing through various channels. Hinting at the possibility of achieving a breakthrough, Cavusoglu asserted that “if both sides take steps, our relations with Saudi Arabia will return to normal.”

Signs of Life in Turkey-Arab Relations 

This development parallels the diplomatic progress made during the last two months between Turkey and Egypt, as well as between Turkey and the UAE. After the al-Ula agreement, Ankara and Cairo held two sessions of exploratory talks in May and September in Cairo and Ankara, respectively. Citing the progress made during these talks, Egypt’s Prime Minister hinted that “The Egyptian-Turkish diplomatic ties could be restored this year if the outstanding issues are overcome.” Likewise, Cairo’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry confirmed that progress had been made which the two parties hoped to build on.

On the Turkey-UAE track, UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed made an unprecedented trip to Ankara on August 18, during which he met Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Soon after, Erdogan and the UAE’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) spoke over the phone. Abu Dhabi is currently considering significant investment opportunities in Turkey, including a $500 million move to buy Turkey’s MNG Kargo delivery company.

After Saudi Arabia received the credentials of Fatih Ulusoy, Turkey’s new ambassador to Riyadh, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin maintained a positive attitude towards the improvement of relations with Riyadh, noting that “there may soon be positive developments in Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia.” Although the rapprochement efforts between Turkey and Saudi Arabia were initiated long before even Egypt and the UAE started thinking of mending fences with Ankara, no concrete diplomatic breakthroughs have yet taken place.

Obstacles to Turkey-Saudi Rapprochement

For quite some time, Turkish officials have been optimistic about normalizing Ankara’s relations with Riyadh. From Turkey’s perspective, there is hardly a reason not to pursue normalization. After all, the major issues that caused the rift between the two countries are not present anymore in the regional and international dynamics, whether it be Egypt-Turkey tension, perception of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Khashoggi affair.

Until now, this optimism has yielded nothing concrete beyond conciliatory official statements between the two states. Instead, underneath the surface of high-level exchanges, serious differences in interest persist. On September 9, an Arab League’s committee on the foreign ministry level condemned what it labelled Ankara’s intervention in the internal affairs of the Arab countries. The statement, sponsored by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, was met with objections and reservations from several other Arab countries, including Qatar, Libya, Somalia, and Djibouti. Turkey rejected the “stereotypical allegations,” lodged by the Arab League, highlighting that such comments contradict and undermine the recent positive actions taken in the region.

Recent positive bilateral developments between Turkey and Egypt, and between Turkey and the UAE suggest that the Arab League statement predominantly reflects Saudi hesitancy toward rapprochement.  Indeed, reconciliation efforts between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have seemed to stall in recent years. Bilateral trade between the two countries still sits far below its $5.6 billion peak registered in 2015, as the unofficial Saudi boycott of Turkish goods remains in place, though  Saudi authorities dispute this charge. Second, despite positive gestures toward Turkey by King Salman in 2020 and 2021,  Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has never expressed a similar interest in closer relations. The Crown Prince’s recalcitrance is a significant obstacle to mending relations with Ankara, especially as the investigation into the Khashoggi case continues to damage the Crown Prince’s image and reputation around the world.

While MBS may think Saudi Arabia is not yet in a critical position to be forced to restore relations with Ankara, several regional indicators would suggest otherwise. Riyadh remains stuck in the Yemeni quagmire, unable to cope with the strategic moves of its regional peers, and is losing its traditional influence in the region. The fact that Riyadh—the world’s third most powerful in terms of military expenditures according to 2018 figures—has sought military assistance from Greece, which is not a formidable country in terms of economic and military capacity, underlines this reality.

Turkey, on the other hand, has succeeded in extending its influence through several conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caucasus. From a position of increased regional influence, Ankara has strengthened its negotiating position, whereas Saudi Arabia’s self-inflicted injuries in Yemen, the Gulf, and throughout the greater Middle East have forced it to reconcile with Doha and engage with Iran from a position of weakness.

Strategic Necessity and Evolving Saudi Partnerships

Its close relationship with Iraq notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia is currently the only heavy-weight regional power without good relations with the other critical players in the Middle East, i.e. Turkey, Iran, and Israel. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s strategic landscape is unlikely to improve soon; Riyadh is not expected to resolve its disputes with Iran anytime soon, and it cannot turn to Israel for a security pact without seriously harming its image in the wider Arab and Islamic world.

Considering Riyadh’s widening gap with the UAE on a host of issues, this leaves Saudi Arabia with no genuine partners in the region. Because relations between the Biden administration and MBS remain strained, the Kingdom is turning towards less powerful strategic partners, such as Greece, for assistance.

On September 14, more than 120 Greek Armed Forces personnel departed with Patriot batteries to Saudi Arabia to help the Kingdom defend itself and fill the gap left by the US decision to withdraw its Patriot missiles from the country, despite enduring Houthi attacks. A week later, a team from the Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) arrived in Greece to participate in a special operations exercise with the Greek special forces. While such measures will certainly fall short of protecting the Kingdom given their limited military benefit, this emerging partnership will add another layer of complication to Riyadh’s relations with Turkey.

The impotence of Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan exemplifies fading Saudi influence. After the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the US and nearly every Western nation turned to Qatar for critical diplomatic and logistical help, instead of Saudi Arabia. Countries like Turkey, Iran, and even the UAE all have a role to play in the Afghan issue. With the exception of improving its relations with Pakistan and a visit for the Saudi Foreign Minister to India, Riyadh has failed to effectively assert itself in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Given the worrying trendlines for Riyadh, it would be impossible for Saudi Arabia to sustain its present foreign policy preferences if it wants to avoid slipping into regional obscurity. Improving relations with Turkey presents a reasonable option to help Saudi Arabia break out of the current spiral, especially if the U.S. and the new Iranian government reach an agreement regarding the implementation of the JCPOA. Yet, the decision to enhance the bilateral relations is not up to Turkey alone, both sides have to come to an agreement that better relations between Riyadh and Ankara would advance their mutual interests in the region and beyond.

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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Dr. Ali Bakir is a Research Assistant Professor at Ibn Khaldon Center. He is also a senior consultant who focuses on MENA geopolitics and security, foreign and defense policies of Turkey and the Gulf States, great power politics in the ME, and small states’ behavior. Dr. Eyüp Ersoy is a lecturer in the Department of International Relations at Ahi Evran University in Turkey. Dr. Ersoy specializes on Turkey-Middle East relations.

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