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The Saudi-Iranian Accord: Turkey Navigating a New Regional Landscape

The 2023 Saudi Arabia-Iran deal, facilitated by China, has left Turkey apprehensive about potential shifts in regional power balance, economic impacts, and heightened sectarian tensions. Amid these concerns and the upcoming Turkish presidential election, the nation faces the challenge of adjusting its foreign policy to maintain its influence in an evolving Middle East landscape.

After years of antagonism, Iran and Saudi Arabia decided to restore ties in March 2023 in a momentous accord mediated by China, a move believed to demonstrate Beijing’s growing influence in the region in contrast to the United States’ declining position. However, the new deal was not only a surprise to major powers such as the United States but also to regional powers such as Turkey. The relationship between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran—three regional powers in the greater Middle East—has historically fluctuated, including cooperation and tension. There have been times when Turkey has enjoyed close relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, driven by shared interests and mutual benefits in various sectors. However, maintaining the regional power balance has always been at the heart of the relationship between Ankara, Riyadh, and Tehran.

For this reason, the 2023 deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia has worried Turkey as it could potentially impact the balance of power in the Middle East. As a key regional player, Turkey has been carefully observing the unfolding developments between Iran and Saudi Arabia as it seeks to maintain its influence and protect its interests in the region. While Turkey does not want to be left behind in taking advantage of China’s strong economic and political presence in the region, its traditional ties with the West and its NATO membership severely restrict Ankara’s ability to benefit from its relations with Beijing fully.

Turkey’s Major Regional Concerns

Turkey’s primary concern is a prospective shift in the regional balance of power. Despite their divergent political and religious perspectives, Turkey has historically maintained a delicate equilibrium in its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. The newfound cooperation between the two nations could result in a reorganization of regional alliances, potentially undermining Turkey’s strategic position.

The potential economic ramifications are another source of worry for Turkey. Any agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia might affect trade, investment, and energy resources in the region, all of which are important to Turkey’s economy. This becomes even more crucial considering Turkey’s dependence on Iranian oil imports. Higher energy prices or less access to resources may be on the horizon for Turkey if the accord leads to closer cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia on energy matters.

Turkey is also concerned that the pact will strengthen the Iran-Saudi Arabia collaboration at the expense of other major regional players, including itself. As a result, Turkey may be forced to choose sides in regional disputes or find itself marginalized in diplomatic efforts, contrary to previous stances where Ankara kept its role as a mediator and influential actor than choosing sides in a polarized region.

China’s role as a mediator in this deal is also crucial to Ankara. Historically, Turkey has been seen as a Western ally. However, the ever-increasing influence of China in the world, specifically the Middle East, makes it harder for Turkey to maintain its heavy reliance on Western players, the United States and the EU. In the current situation, even Saudi Arabia, a U.S. strategic partner in the region, has rapidly improved its relations with China. While Turkey does not want to be left behind in taking advantage of China’s strong economic and political presence in the region, its traditional ties with the West and its NATO membership severely restrict Ankara’s ability to fully benefit from its relations with Beijing. This gives Iran and Saudi Arabia an advantage in strengthening their regional influence, as China’s role is growing globally.

Turkey is also worried that its close alliances with the West, particularly the United States, may suffer as a result of the new deal between Tehran and Riyadh. Turkey has always been an important mediator between the West and the Middle East. This relationship may shift if Iran and Saudi Arabia reconcile, raising concerns about Turkey’s continued significance and possibly hurting its ties with other crucial allies. If China continues to play a stronger mediatory role in regional conflicts, Ankara’s traditional position in the region will be seriously undermined.

The Future of Turkey’s Relations with the GCC

In addition to these main concerns, Turkey could be anxious about the agreement’s implications for its regional foreign policy objectives. Ankara was embroiled in a number of regional conflicts and crises, including the Syrian civil war, the Libyan conflict, and the blockade of Qatar. The agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia may affect Turkey’s influence and role in these and other regional issues, especially those involving the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.

During the Gulf crisis in 2017, Turkey supported Doha against the blockading states providing Ankara with a greater influence in the Gulf. If the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal leads to a broader collaboration between Tehran and the GCC states, Turkey may need to adjust its strategy and find new methods to maintain its influence in the region—a complex and difficult undertaking.

In addition, Turkey has been an outspoken critic of Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, frequently siding with the Syrian opposition against the Iranian-backed Assad regime and militias. If the agreement leads to a closer partnership between Iran and Saudi Arabia on regional security issues, Turkey may need to reevaluate its position on the Syrian conflict and seek new alliances to defend its interests.

At the same time, the outcome of Turkey’s presidential election in 2023 will significantly influence the future course of Ankara’s regional foreign policy. If Erdogan remains in power, Turkey’s foreign policy will presumably continue along its current path. However, if the opposition coalition wins the upcoming election, the situation for Turkey will become even more convoluted, as opposition leaders have promised closer ties with the West.

Therefore, Turkey has numerous concerns regarding the Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement of 2023, including potential shifts in the regional balance of power, economic repercussions, regional influence, relations with Western allies, and the escalation of sectarian tensions. Turkey must also contemplate how the agreement will affect its regional foreign policy. In addition to the above concerns, the results of Turkey’s 2023 presidential election will play a vital role in shaping the future of Turkey’s foreign policy in the region. However, regardless of the results, Turkey needs to make major adjustments to its foreign policy to keep up with the ever-changing dynamics of the region and maintain its position as an active and influential regional player.

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. Hamoon Khelghat-Doost is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Üsküdar University. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the National University of Singapore (NUS). His main fields of interest include gender, media, forced migration, political violence, international security, terrorism, and sustainable development with special focus on the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia. He is author of the book The Strategic Logic of Women in Jihadi Organizations: From Operation to State Building (Springer, 2021). Dr. Khelghat-Doost is also a Next Generation Leader on Gender, Peace, and Security (GPS) at Women In International Security (WIIS), Washington D.C., United States as well as a member of the Board of Academia at the Academy of Security, Intelligence and Risk Studies in Singapore. He has the experience of conducting field research in several countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

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