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Resuscitating Turkish-Saudi Relations: MBS’ Visit to Ankara

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Türkiye last week, following President Erdogan’s visit to the Kingdom in late April during Ramadan. Prior to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in 2018, high-level visits between the two countries formed a normal part of their cooperation in the region. Amid economic challenges and regional crises in the Middle East, the post-Arab Spring security dilemma positioned Türkiye against the Saudi-led status quo. In spite of being in opposing camps with regard to the role political Islam and democratization in the region, the two countries were cooperating in regard to Iraq and Syria.

Erdogan’s vocal response to Khashoggi’s killing led to severe tension between the two countries after Türkiye supported an international investigation into the killing. Tense negotiations between the two parties over the trial of Khashoggi’s killers remained inconclusive for four years, resulting in a breakdown in diplomatic relations. However, recent changes in global and domestic pressures on Ankara have brought about a fundamental change in Turkish policy. In the United States, the Biden administration does not support legal action against the Saudi regime and is more interested in repairing relations with the Kingdom to contain high oil prices and rising inflation at home. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is the hegemon of the GCC, so any ties between Türkiye and other monarchies are also affected by tensions with Riyadh. Indeed, in response to the Khashoggi saga, the Kingdom started an unofficial embargo on Turkish products and discouraged its citizens and residents from visiting, trading, and purchasing real estate in Türkiye. The normalization between Riyadh and Ankara that began in April thus represents a necessary and tactical partnership, rather than solely a diplomatic de-escalation.

An Auspicious Beginning

Before discussing the motivations behind and potential consequences of these developments, it is pertinent to describe the details and nature of MBS’ visit. The crown prince made three short trips to Egypt, Jordan, and Türkiye as part of his regional tour before President Biden visits the Kingdom in July. The Saudi leader’s visit to these three countries is widely seen as an attempt to reaffirm his personal legitimacy and leadership in the region before meeting the American president.

The crown prince was warmly welcomed by President Erdogan and high-level officials in Türkiye. After the day-long trip, the two leaders issued a joint declaration that called for increased cooperation across a number of sectors, including tourism, finance, real estate, defense industries, and cultural affairs. It also calls for Türkiye’s support for Saudi Arabia’s bid for EXPO 2030.

Whereas Jordan and Egypt have traditionally enjoyed cordial relations with the Kingdom, for Türkiye, the visit marks an important step in the reconciliation process with Riyadh. It is, therefore, a step in a long process of rapprochement, rather than a final resolution of outstanding political disputes. As the parties remain in disagreement over several key issues, there has been no public announcement regarding the two countries’ future role in the region and its geopolitics. This strengthens MBS’ legitimacy and power and directs Türkiye toward the status quo in the Middle East.

A New Cooperative Paradigm

The ongoing thaw has led Turkish foreign policymakers to recognize MBS’ legacy and personal leadership of the Kingdom, which is likely to last for the coming decades. The murder of Khashoggi has put MBS under global pressure, and his visit to Türkiye and closing the Khashoggi case remove one of the major threats to his leadership, and comes in the right time before President Biden’s visit to Riyadh in mid-July.

Despite this new and MBS-oriented phase of bilateral ties, Saudi Arabia’s economic connections to Türkiye remain limited. In the joint declaration, both states vowed to enhance their financial cooperation. Nevertheless, the visit underscored potential cooperation on four major regional issues. As Iran is a major security concern for both Türkiye and Saudi Arabia, the thaw might provide an opportunity for collaboration. In Syria, the two states cooperated before 2015 militarily and politically against the Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Türkiye’s upcoming military operation in neighboring Syria could be supported by the Kingdom. A resolution process could also be initiated in Syria with the participation of other monarchies and Arab states, which would lend legitimacy to the outcome of any negotiations that take place.

Syria and Iraq are closely related to the emergent anti-Iran bloc in the region. The current bilateral de-escalation efforts between Türkiye and Saudi Arabia have not included Iran, and both leaders emphasized the importance of regional stability and the need to counter Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the face of Iran-backed Houthi missile strikes against the UAE and the Kingdom, Erdogan has stated several times that he supports the security and stability of the GCC. Historically, Türkiye has acted as a balancing force in Arab and Iranian relations, but it appears that the future foreign policy strategies of Ankara will espouse a more vehement anti-Iran agenda than in the past. Identifying Iran as the source of regional instability will provide important common ground in the short-term status of Turkish-Saudi relations.

Iran’s containment is also related to the potential cooperation between the two powers and Israel. Bahrain and the Emirates have established diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020, but Saudi Arabia has thus far demurred. The Abraham Accords, a landmark agreement in the Middle East, demonstrated a Saudi approval of the collaboration between these two monarchies and Israel. The Turkish government also revised its diplomatic ties with Israel, and once again, the anti-Iran narrative took center stage during this process. Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid thanked Türkiye during his visit to Ankara and emphasized his country’s recent coordination with Ankara to foil an Iranian plot in Istanbul targeting Israeli citizens.

The visit of Mohammed bin Salman may mark the resuscitation of ties between Riyad and Ankara, but these diplomatic overtures could come to include other countries as well, all aimed at containing Iran’s regional behavior. The recognition of MBS’ legacy and leadership by Türkiye, an important non-Arab state in the Middle East, will strengthen status quo forces in the region and depolarize the Qatar-Iran-Türkiye nexus that emerged in the wake of the GCC crisis of 2017.

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. Betul Dogan Akkas is a researcher of the Arab Gulf States. She holds a PhD in government and international affairs from Durham University. In her research, she examines foreign policy, security strategies, and political culture in the GCC states. Dogan-Akkas also covers the involvement of the GCC states in the Yemen war and Turkiye-GCC relations.

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