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The Emergence of Saudi-Turkish Relations: Ataturk and Ibn Saud’s Pragmatism

There is a conventional – even clichéd – understanding that Turkey had frosty relations with Saudi Arabia during the 1920s after Turkey replaced the Ottoman Empire and became a republic. However, contrary to this understanding, archival records and historical studies demonstrate that although Turkish-Saudi relations were not always cordial, they were notably peaceful, as the two states refrained from interfering in the internal affairs of one another and more generally did not attempt to spread their preferred system of government. Historical visits and developments during this period highlight how two newly established states, each striving to carve out a place for itself in the new postwar order, attempted to build their bilateral relations based on mutual respect.

 

After a span of successful military campaigns in the Arabian Peninsula lasting two and a half decades, King Abdulaziz Al-Saud was proclaimed as the King of Hejaz on January 8, 1926 (1). In May of the same year, Turkey, under the rule of former military leader Mustafa Kemal (more commonly known as “Atatürk”, or “Father of the Turks,” following his adoption of the surname in 1934) became the first country in the world to recognize the Kingdom of Hejaz (2). Turkish-Saudi relations started to develop then, and have continued since (3). Turkish recognition of Abdulaziz’s new kingdom was an interesting development, particularly since at that time there was no internal or external pressure on Turkey to do so. Although there are few sources about Turkey’s motivations for this move, Turkish historian Hakan Özoğlu notes that it was likely due to a lingering grudge on the part of Ataturk’s followers toward Sharif Hussein, King of Hejaz until its loss to Abdulaziz, who had led the Arab Revolt of 1916 against the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, Turkey would have taken pleasure in Abdulaziz expelling Hussein from the Hejaz (4). In that sense, Turkey probably recognized the Kingdom as “payback” for the Hashemite betrayal.

 

Turkey’s First Envoys to Hejaz

 

According to a decree signed by Mustafa Kemal on May 7, 1926, Ankara sent three officials to Hejaz as the first Turkish diplomatic representatives: former Ottoman consul-general (Shahbandar) of Tabriz, Süleyman Şevket Bey; former Ottoman governor (Vali) of Yemen, Mahmud Nedim Bey; and deputy consul-general (Shahbandar) of Alexandria, Feridun Fahri Bey (5). After the conversion of the representative office into a permanent diplomatic mission, Şevket Bey assumed his job as the charge d’affaires on May 25, 1926 in Jeddah (6). When presenting his letter of credentials to King Abdulaziz, Şevket Bey delivered a speech in Arabic indicating that his country wished to establish positive relations with the Kingdom: “Turks and Arabs have had fraternal and friendly relations for centuries. We Turks never forget goodness. Remembering this is important to improve our friendly relations” (7).

 

Of note, archives indicate that a few months before the establishment of diplomatic ties, the Saudi king had invited the Turkish side to join the “Islamic Congress” organized in Mecca to discuss the future of the Hejaz. The invitation was important, as the King had extended it  despite opposition from the other emerging Arab countries, many of which wished to isolate Turkey because it had abolished the Caliphate in 1924. Indeed, given that Saudi Arabia bordered three Hashemite countries (Hejaz, Jordan, and Iraq), the Saudis may have invited the Turks to the Congress rather than isolate them as it sought a regional ally beyond the Arab world (8). Turkey, which read the invitation as a gesture of goodwill, sent Edip Bey as its representative (9).

 

However, Turkey’s participation had another level of significance. Prior to the conference in Mecca, Ankara had first declined to join the Cairo Conference, held in May 1926, which also focused on the issue of the Caliphate. At the time, Turkish authorities refused to attend because they argued that the conference contradicted the secular principles of the Turkish state (10). Instead, Ankara agreed to participate in the Congress in Mecca held in June 1926, as the aim of that Congress did not violate the principles of the Turkish state. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the Turkish delegation in Mecca behaved cautiously (11) and objected to discussing any political issue and taking decisions on any matter other than the well-being of pilgrims and holy sites (12).

 

Another significant historical document hinting at the Saudi-Turkish relationship is the decree signed by Mustafa Kemal on June 1, 1927, indicating that the authorities in Hejaz and Nejd had requested the presence of a Turkish doctor in Jeddah during the pilgrimage season, and that Doctor Şerafeddin Bey from the Ministry of Health (Sıhhıyye ve Muavenet-i İçtimaiye Vekaleti) had agreed to be sent in this regard (13). This decree indicated that Turkey was closely following the conditions of Turkish pilgrims and was in close contact with the Saudi side over this matter.

 

However, the relations between two sides took another step forward after Turkey inked a treaty of friendship with the Kingdom of Hejaz on 3 August 1929 in Mecca – King Abdulaziz ruled the Hejaz as a separate Kingdom from the Kingdom of Nejd from the 1927 conquest until the unification in 1932 (14). According to Article 1 of the treaty, Turkey recognized the independence of the Kingdom with all its territories and both sides acknowledged the residency rights of citizens in each other’s territories (15). This treaty could be read as the first document that officially recognized the Kingdom and initiated diplomatic relations with it on an equal basis in the international community at that time (16). The Saudi side ratified the agreement in November 1930. When the Kingdoms of Hejaz and Nejd were unified into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on September 22, 1932, Mustafa Kemal was among the first statesmen to congratulate the Saudi king and recognize the kingdom with its new name (17). Turkey also renewed a friendship agreement with the newly-established Arab country.

 

Prince Faisal Meets with Atatürk

 

One of the most interesting archival records concerning early Turkish-Saudi relations is documentation of the first high-level visit of the king’s 27-year-old son, Prince Faisal bin Abdulaziz, to Turkey in 1932 (18). As part of his extensive tour to the countries that had recognized the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Prince Faisal, the Kingdom’s first foreign minister, left Jeddah on April 10 with a large delegation and arrived at Istanbul on June 8 on board a Soviet ship named Kotovsky (19). Prince Faisal’s 15 day-long tour of Turkey included visits to important sites and meetings with top officials, including Mustafa Kemal. The young prince first visited Istanbul, and then moved to Ankara, where he was received by Kemal and his entourage. Though Prince Faisal was not the head of state, Turkey’s nonetheless offered him its highest honors; he was received with a ceremonial guard and marching band (20). The Saudi press at the time noted and praised Turkey’s generous welcoming ceremony.

 

Prince Faisal’s visit was considered as the first step of modern Turkish-Saudi relations. There are several anecdotes regarding this important visit in Turkish and Saudi newspapers; one of the most striking is Faisal’s statement upon arrival, which read: “I am here as a representative of a foreign government; however, I come here as someone who feels the pain of separation and longs for unity with the sibling country. Historical and political events that took place in the recent past have surely failed the sincerity and fellowship that our people feel for each other. Our two peoples are brothers and will remain so.” (21)

 

Some notable developments in Turkish-Saudi relations followed the visit. At the request of the Saudi side, ten Saudi students were dispatched to Ankara for flight training after Turkey’s Council of Ministers granted its permission on April 21, 1933. A few months later, on October 29, King Abdulaziz sent a congratulatory telegram to Mustafa Kemal on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Republic of Turkey. 1934 was a difficult year for both sides. During the Hejaz-Yemen War in 1934, Turkey adopted a neutral stance and tried to reconcile the parties – an attitude welcomed by the Saudi side. This stance also facilitated the resolution of the issue of properties of Turkish origin and Turkish citizens in the Hejaz, which the Saudis had neglected until that time (22). As sign of the progress in relations, Turkey even suggested Saudi Arabia’s inclusion in the Saadabad Pact (a non-aggression pact signed by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan on July 8, 1937); however, Riyadh was not included because it did not meet the prerequisite of membership in the League of Nations (23). In mid-1935, it was announced that Crown Prince Saud would visit Turkey as part of his European trip, although that visit was later canceled due to “time constraints” amid a general economic decline during the Great Depression (24).

 

When the Alexandretta (later known as Hatay) crisis broke out in 1936, according to the British Consul in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia was disturbed by the situation, but chose to remain silent in order to preserve its relations with Turkey. Finally, on the occasion of Atatürk’s death in 1938, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal sent the following telegram to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “It is with great regret that we learned of the death of the President of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk. It is a great loss.”

 

In short, despite the fact that the Republic of Turkey’s secular and Western-oriented approach clashed with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s religious Wahhabi ideology, the two states managed to build the initial stage of their relationships on a cordial and cooperative basis. However, despite this promising start, diplomatic relations remained at the level of charge d’affaires between 1926 and 1942, and Turkish-Saudi relations did not see much progress through the following years.

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

References:

(1)   Mohammed Noureddine, “Arab-Turkish Relations During the Atatürk Era, 1923-1938”, Studies on Turkish-Arab Relations, Annual 1987, Istanbul, p.156.

(2)   Adnan Şişman, “Atatürk Döneminde Türkiye-Suudi Arabistan İlişkilerinin Başlaması ve ilk Diplomatik Temaslar”, Atatürk 4. Uluslararası Kongresi, Kazakistan, 1999, p.170.

(3)   İsmail Soysal, “Turkish-Arab Diplomatic Relations After the Second World War (1945-1986)”, Studies on Turkish-Arab Relations, Annual 1986, Istanbul, p.250.

(4)   Hakan Özoğlu, “Heirs of the Empire: Turkey’s Diplomatic Ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia until the Mid-20th Century” in G. Tol & D. Dumke (eds.), Aspiring Powers, Regional Rivals: Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the New Middle East, The Middle East Institute, 2019, p.11.

(5)   Mustafa Bostancı, “Suudi Arabistan Devleti’nin Kuruluşu ve Türkiye-Suudi Arabistan İlişkileri (1926-1990)”, PhD Dissertation, Gazi University, Graduate School of Social Sciences, 2013, pp.114-115.

(6)   Erdal Şimşek, “Türkiye’nin Ortadoğu Politikası”, Kum Saati Yayıncılık, İstanbul, 2005, p.13.

(7)   Soysal, p.250.

(8)   Orhan Koloğlu, “Gazi’nin Çağında İslam DÜnyası”, Boyut Yayınları, İstanbul, 1994, p.364.

(9)   Bostancı, p.118.

(10) Arnold J. Toynbee, “Survey of International Affairs 1925: The Islamic World since The Peace Settlement”, London: Oxford University Press, 1927, pp.81-90.

(11) Abdullah Al-Ahsan, “Ummah or Nation?”, Identity Crisis in Contemporary Muslim Society, Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1992, p.59.

(12) Toynbee, pp.214-215.

(13) Başbakanlık Cumhuriyet ArŞivi, Fon Kodu: 030.18.01.01, Yer No: 024.35.4.

(14) Muhittin Ataman, “Türkiye-Suudi Arabistan İlişkileri: Temkinli İlişkilerden Çok Taraflı Birlikteliğe”, Ortadoğu Analiz, 2009, Vol.I, No.9, p.74.

(15) The Official Gazette, 31 September 1930, Law No: 1621, p.1.

(16) Ozoğlu, p. 12.

(17) Fethi Tevetoğlu, “Bugünkü Türk-Suudi Dostluğuna İlk Adım: Gazi Mustafa Kemal-Faysal bin Abdülaziz Görüşmesi (1932)”, Studies on Turkish-Arab Relations, Annual 1986, p.295.

(18) Tevetoğlu, p.296.

(19) Saleh Mustafa Islam, “Suudi Arabistan’ı Tanıyınız”, Ayyıldız Matbaası, 1961, p.74.

(20) Tevetoğlu, p.295.

(21) Bostancı, p.114 quoted Turkish daily newspapers.

(22) Şimşek, pp.17-18.

(23) Hasan Duran & Ahmet Karaca, “Tek Parti Dönemi Türk-Arap İlişkileri”, Süleyman Demirel University, The Journal of Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, 2011, Vol.16, No.3, p. 208.

(24) Bostancı, p.153.

Sinem Cengiz, born and raised in Kuwait, is a Turkish researcher with a focus on Gulf affairs, and Turkey’s relations with the broader Middle East. She is a regular columnist for Arab News and the author of the book “Turkish-Saudi relations: Cooperation and Competition in the Middle East.” She tweets at @SinemCngz


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