Will Ankara and Riyadh be able to turn a new page in their relations?

Ali Hajizade

Editor’s column


Turkey and Saudi Arabia are two of the most important countries in the Greater Middle East and the entire Muslim world.

Since 2011, when the region was engulfed in a series of revolutions and uprisings, later called the “Arab Spring”, divergence in positions between Ankara and Riyadh became more apparent. Turkey and Saudi Arabia found themselves on opposite sides of the barricades. The events in Egypt could perhaps be considered one of the major turning points. When Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, came to power in a military coup, Ankara reacted very harshly. To be fair, it should be noted that the coup was supported by a broad spectrum of Egyptian society. This was followed by disagreements on the Syrian and the Libyan issues. During the Qatar crisis, there were demands to remove the Turkish military base from Qatar, and assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 in Istanbul is certainly one of the main problems in relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. And of course, Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood organization also affects bilateral relations. On top of all this, an unofficial embargo was imposed on import of Turkish goods.

Against this backdrop, it would seem that normalization of relations between Ankara and Riyadh was some kind of a miracle. However, recent developments in the region and in the world give some analysts a reason to talk about normalization of relations and overcoming the crisis. The pro-government Turkish media already report about negotiations on normalization between the two countries. Some analysts in Turkey believe that in the wake of the normalization of relations between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), normalization between Saudi Arabia and Turkey may also follow. There is a number of important factors that necessitate a gradual normalization of relations.

On the part of Turkey, these are the problems with the Turkish economy and a catastrophic fall of the Turkish lira. For the Turkish economy, investments from the Arab Gulf countries, and primarily from Saudi Arabia, could serve as something of a lifeline. But it is worth noting that against the background of low oil prices, the conflict in Yemen and the Coronavirus pandemic, Saudi Arabia itself faces economic problems, so it is quite unlikely that in case of normalization, Turkey could expect a significant flow of Saudi investments. Furthermore, the new Washington administration and its rhetoric against Turkey and Saudi Arabia are causing concern in both countries. Moreover, for example, Biden’s statements about Saudi Arabia during the election campaign cross the boundaries of elementary political and human ethics. These considerations urge Ankara and Riyadh to strengthen regional alliances and ties to more effectively confront Washington.

On the part of Saudi Arabia, it becomes obvious over time that confrontation with Turkey in Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean did not really bring any significant results. Turkish expansion and presence in the region has intensified, and Ankara has enlisted the support of some influential circles in the West. And Saudi Arabia and the UAE (and mainly the UAE) in times of crisis spent billions on unsuccessful measures to contain Turkey (the country with a second army in NATO and the intelligence service with centuries of history and enormous capabilities) in these regions. Meanwhile Iran poses an existential threat to the Arab monarchies and primarily to Saudi Arabia, and has not abandoned its global hybrid war and attempts to achieve complete dominance in the Arabian Gulf region. In the long term, the confrontation between Ankara and Riyadh will adversely affect the interests of all GCC states and will inevitably strengthen the positions of Iran and Russia in the region.

Against this backdrop, some positive developments in relations between the two countries began to emerge at the end of 2020. In particular, there was a telephone conversation between King Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and afterwards a positive statement by Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud that his country has a “good and amicable” relationship with Turkey. A week later, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with his Saudi counterpart as part of a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Following the meeting, Cavusoglu wrote on Twitter“We attach importance to our relations with Saudi Arabia. A strong Turkish-Saudi partnership will be beneficial not only for our countries, but also for the entire region”.

In early March, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued an official condemnation of the attacks of the pro-Iranian Houthis on the oil infrastructure of Saudi Arabia Further, the Foreign Ministry’s statement said: “Turkey also conveyed good wishes to Saudi Arabia and its people”.

Later on, there were reports of Saudi Arabia’s interest in Turkish military technologies, in particular in unmanned aerial vehicles that have proven very successful in a number of conflicts. Defense News, which specializes in global defense industry news, reported about assembly of Turkish drones in Saudi Arabia. It should be noted that if Riyadh manages to establish a cooperation with Turkey in the defense sphere, and if Ankara and Riyadh could form under some scenario an alliance in Yemen, Saudi Arabia would have a real chance to resolve the protracted Yemeni conflict, with consideration to the interests of the kingdom. Moreover, the Houthis have recently rejected yet another peace plan. In case of the Turkish-Saudi alliance in Yemen, the Iranian military presence in the Arabian Peninsula would also be blocked. Which, in principle, is in the interests of both countries.

One of the most painful issues in relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia is the issue of Turkey’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Saudi Arabia, as in a number of Gulf countries this organization is considered “terrorist”. Although it is worth noting that this organization is supported not only by Turkey, but also, for example, by Qatar, with whom the GCC normalized relations. I believe it will be necessary to work out some kind of approach on the basis of finding the middle ground, there is no other more realistic solution at the moment. If the parties manage to agree on the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood, this will considerably simplify the dialogue between the countries. Moreover, signals about possible normalization between Turkey and Egypt can play a role in the issue of dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood.

One of the main destructive geopolitical factors in the Arabian Gulf region is that of Iran. Tehran, with its permanent expansion in the Greater Middle East, poses a threat to virtually all states of the region without exception. Another issue is that the degree of threat may differ. With consideration to the new administration in Washington, and its desire to resume dialogue with Iran, it could be predicted that an effective Washington’s opposition to Iranian expansion in the region is not to be expected. It is not the first time for Joe Biden in the White House, he was vice-president during the Barack Obama administration and was a co-sponsor of the American strategy in the Middle East, which ultimately led to weakening of the American influence in the region and strengthening the role of Iran and Russia. Early signals from Biden and his administration indicate that they have not abandoned this strategy. It is no secret that there are those among the Democrats who want to see Iran instead of Saudi Arabia as the main US ally in the region. They could be considered an extension of the Iranian lobby in the region. That being the case, Riyadh must calculate such a scenario of the development of events.

Improvement of relations with Turkey could help Riyadh create a counterbalance to Iran and Iranian expansion. Although some believe that there exists some kind of idyll between Ankara and Tehran, in reality that is not the case. Moreover, based on a number of theological, historical and ideological factors, these two countries are rather historical antagonists than partners. There are deep contradictions between Iran and Turkey that surface from time to time. One of the most recent cases is a short poem that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recited during the victory parade in Baku, and instant reaction of the Iranian regime exposed the whole web of contradictions existing between these countries. Here you need to take into account that, according to Erdogan himself, he never recites poetry for no reason, each verse is a message that has a specific addressee. It looks like this time, the addressee immediately received the message. This was followed by a hysterical reaction of the Iranians to the Turkish operation in northern Iraq … All this and much more are a clear signal for those who closely follow the region in general and Turkey in particular. It is Turkey, and not the United States, where geopolitical priorities change with the change of administration, who could become an effective shield against Iranian expansion in the Arabian Gulf region. But this could only be possible with the establishment of a direct, comprehensive dialogue between Ankara and Riyadh. Also recently, there was a rapprochement between Great Britain and Turkey, as apparently London in its post Brexit foreign policy strategy attributes some kind of a special role to Ankara. This special role could result in close cooperation in the Arabian Gulf region.

Finally, I would like to conclude my article with the words of an excellent expert, Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib – “Nevertheless, a dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Turkey has a greater chance of contributing to regional stability than many other regional bilateral relationships.

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