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What Drives Turkish Saudi Attempts at Rapprochement?

Recent diplomatic exchanges between Turkey and Saudi Arabia suggest a thawing of relations between the two rivals for Sunni leadership amidst a general easing of regional competition across the Middle East. This broader shift carries substantial implications for Turkish-Saudi relations and regional geopolitics, including but not limited to economic and security engagement. Indeed, warming ties between Ankara and Riyadh could highlight growing competition between the latter and Abu Dhabi, the Kingdom’s efforts to diversify its security relationships, and Turkey’s increasing needs for economic assistance amidst a worsening currency crisis – to name a few issues of importance to each state.

Diplomatic Engagement Between Sunni Rivals

Saudi and Turkish officials have held multiple meetings and phone conversations within the last year, stemming in large part from wider regional efforts to lower the temperature after the tumultuous years following the Arab Spring. These calls suggest a growing desire for pragmatic cooperation between the two states.

Within this broader context, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud at an international conference in Uzbekistan on July 18. The following day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held a phone conversation with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, exchanging Eid greetings and discussing the two nations’ bilateral ties. Overall, Saudi and Turkish officials held numerous phone calls and ministerial-level meetings in the last year, including a November 2021 meeting between Saudi Trade Minister Majid bin Abdullah al-Qasabi and Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay.

These engagements probably contributed to Erdoğan’s decision to visit Riyadh to meet King Salman, a trip tentatively planned for February. Erdoğan announced the meeting on January 3 when asked about his government’s efforts to resolve trade disputes with Saudi Arabia, stating that “[Salman] is expecting me in February.” Such a meeting would be substantial considering the ongoing issues between the two states, including Turkey’s harboring of Muslim Brotherhood members, its support for Riyadh’s former Arab Spring rival Qatar, and its vocal attacks on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MbS) for his suspected role in the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy, specifically cites recent reconciliation efforts within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as driving improved Turkish-Saudi relations. “The Al-Ula Summit, which led to a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, now leaves Turkey in a position whereby it can continue to deepen its strong alliance with Qatar without that being at the expense of this relationship with Riyadh. Turkey is trying to take advantage of this new environment in the Gulf region in which the Qataris and Saudis are moving ahead with a new chapter that is based on reconciliation and cooperation.”

Indeed, the end of the four-year Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini-Egyptian embargo of Qatar is significant. Ultimately, the GCC’s 41st Summit in January 2021, which produced the Al-Ula Declaration ending the feud, appears to have opened the door for Ankara and Riyadh to mend ties. Crucially, this comes as both states have focused increasingly on their economic and security interests. As a result, the needs and interests of both states as the region enters a new period of reconciliation and pragmatism have made the time ripe for a rapprochement.

Riyadh’s Interests in Improving the Relationship

In this context, Riyadh’s main driver for improving ties with Ankara could stem from Abu Dhabi’s growing regional power and diplomatic clout amidst flourishing competition between the two traditional Gulf allies. The Emiratis are using their increased influence in Turkey, as highlighted by UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s (MbZ) November 24 meeting with Erdoğan – the first meeting between Turkish and Emirati leaders in nearly a decade. Following the meeting, the two countries announced ten memoranda of understanding (MoUs) in the fields of investment, finance, trade, energy, and the environment, including a $10 billion Emirati fund to support strategic investment in Turkey. Additionally, Turkey struck a $5 billion currency swap deal with the UAE on January 19. In addition to his Saudi trip, Erdoğan will also visit the UAE in February.

While MoUs require action to carry any weight, Ankara and Abu Dhabi’s efforts to mend relations are certainly significant to regional affairs – and Riyadh will examine them with keen interest. Thus, Cafiero believes that Saudi intentions to improve ties with Turkey “have to do with some tension that we saw between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi last year. This factor has also contributed to the Saudi leadership’s desire to improve its relationship with Ankara.”

Understanding this, the Saudi leadership has apprehensions about Emirati efforts to improve relations with regional neighbors and wishes to counter them – or preempt them. In this regard, Riyadh could counter the UAE’s influence on Turkey by offering Ankara economic incentives with fewer strings attached, particularly concerning Turkey’s Islamist leanings, to advance its interests. Such a move would fall in line with the Kingdom’s recent actions to counter the UAE’s growing stature, including the requirements forcing foreign companies to place their regional headquarters in Saudi Arabia after 2023 to continue doing business in the country.

That being said, Saudi Arabia could also be seeking to mitigate its security concerns by developing ties with Turkey’s substantial defense sector. In this context, the Saudis have an overt interest in Turkish drones to deter regional threats, including Iran’s own evolving drone capabilities. The Turkish defense industry manufactures some of the most advanced drones in the world, as proven in warzones from Libya to Ethiopia, a fact certainly not lost on the Kingdom.

Indeed, when considering Saudi security interests spanning multiple decades, Riyadh’s top concern has consistently been Iran and its proxy forces. Considering the growing U.S. interest in shifting its foreign policy assets and focus to East Asia, together with substantial criticism within the United States of the Saudi monarchy’s human rights record, the Kingdom could benefit from a diversified security portfolio addressing its most pressing national security anxieties.

Ankara Needs its Neighbors

At the same time, Ankara also faces significant domestic challenges that warrant a shift in its regional strategy. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has dominated Turkish politics since 2003, is currently confronting increased anger across Turkey due to a worsening economic crisis and a prolonged war in Syria – much to the benefit of a united opposition with an upcoming presidential election in 2023.

Ankara also has serious concerns about growing military cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and Turkey’s declared archenemy, Greece. In this context, Athens has deployed a Patriot missile battery to the Kingdom to replace withdrawing American air defense assets while UAE and Saudi fighter jets have flown to Greece to conduct joint air exercises. Furthermore, Qatar Petroleum has a joint venture with ExxonMobil to explore for gas in Greek Cypriot waters claimed  by Turkey. Thus, growing Greek influence in the GCC must certainly work Ankara.

As a result, Ankara is revising its foreign policy strategy, particularly with regard to the Gulf monarchies and Egypt. At the center of this effort are the country’s economic interests, which have grown in importance alongside Turkey’s brutal currency crisis, which led the Turkish lira to lose 44 percent of its value against the US dollar in 2021. Erdoğan certainly understands that this situation is an unsustainable one. Ultimately, the wealthy Gulf monarchies carry substantial investment potential that can help resolve many of Ankara’s economic problems. Given Istanbul’s status as both a fashion and a tourist hub, alongside previously strong trade in specialized sectors for both countries, the Turks stand to gain from efforts to resume trade with Saudi Arabia following Riyadh’s unofficial blockade of many Turkish goods.

Indeed, this is partially proven by Turkish government actions that could be perceived as overtures to the Arab states. In March 2021, Ankara decided to obstruct Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated TV channels unless they scaled back criticism of Egypt and its leader, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. While this move was certainly a gesture aimed at Egypt, the Saudis, who staunchly supported Al-Sisi during and after his 2013 military coup, must have noticed. That said, contrary to what was originally perceived, Turkey’s Islamist leanings could have more impact on Emirati-Turkish relations than the Saudi-Turkish relations.

Overall, Saudi-Turkish diplomatic efforts represent a gradual shift across much of the region to replace a decade of aggressive competition with a period of relative pragmatism and cooperation. That said, sustaining a stronger relationship may prove difficult given the near certainty of MbS’s eventual succeeding to the throne despite the controversy surrounding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Indeed, previous anti-MbS rhetoric will make relations difficult once the crown prince comes to power in Saudi Arabia. That said, a working relationship can emerge if both states choose pragmatism over previous feuds. This is particularly true should Erdoğan’s AKP be forced out of power in Turkey, although this is not a precondition for cooperative ties. Thus, all signs indicate that warming relations will continue for now, and should endure in the future if both states continue to deem it necessary to preserve their state interests and political goals.

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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Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa.

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