Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s visit to Turkey on 21 June launched a new phase in Turkish-Saudi relations. In their joint statement, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Saudi guest declared their intention to embark on a new era of cooperation in political, economic, military, security and cultural affairs. The effort to normalise relations ends a period of nearly complete rupture over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and differences on regional policy issues. The thaw began in April when the Turkish court trying 26 Saudi suspects in absentia for the murder halted the trial and transferred the case to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh, in return, lifted the unofficial ban on imports from Turkey. On the eve of the crown prince’s visit, the Turkish president underscored the importance of facilitating bilateral trade and exploring opportunities for investment, transforming closer bilateral contacts into tangible partnerships. Bin Salman echoed the importance of closer cooperation with Ankara, particularly in defence and energy.
The royal Saudi visit coincides with the Turkey reeling from the effects of economic deterioration, which have grown increasingly severe since 2018. Inflation currently stands at over 70 per cent, the lira has hit new record lows against the dollar and declining reserves make it hard to service the country’s crippling foreign debt. Ankara has turned to the Gulf and, most recently, Riyadh to jack up its teetering economy.
Riyadh, for its part, is keen to bolster its regional profile and forge partnerships primarily aimed at reining in Iranian regional ambitions, especially in view of an agreement between Tehran and the US to revive the Iranian nuclear agreement. It is also no coincidence that the Saudi visit to Ankara should come ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in mid-July. Crown Prince bin Salman’s tour, which also included Egypt and Jordan, is a means to demonstrate Riyadh’s regional leadership and its ability to rally other regional powers behind it.
But Saudi Arabia is also interested in promoting military cooperation with Turkey, which has a large and growing defence manufactures sector. In March, Erdogan revealed that Riyadh had put in a sizeable order for Turkish-made drones. In 2020, Saudi Arabia signed a $200 billion deal with Vestel Defence Industry to set up a joint manufacturing project in Saudi Arabia for the Vestel Karayel drones.
Not long before Prince Salman’s visit, Erdogan began to mend fences with another Gulf ruler. In February 2022, he met with then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan on his first visit to the UAE in nearly a decade in order to revive bilateral relations. Prior to this, Turkey and Egypt began tentative moves to reconcile. Ankara had begun to send out feelers to Saudi Arabia over a year and a half ago. In November 2020, Erdogan phoned the Saudi Monarch King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz to stress the importance of resolving differences through dialogue. Subsequently, the Saudi foreign minister replied that the kingdom’s relations with Turkey were “excellent” and that “there is no information to indicate the existence of an unofficial boycott of Turkish products.” In November 2020, Saudi Arabia offered emergency relief supplies to the victims of the earthquake that struck Izmir. Turkey continued to make overtures to Riyadh along the lines of the Turkish president’s statement in December 2021 that his country would work to “elevate relations with Saudi Arabia to a better place.”
Contrary to the Saudi foreign minister’s statement above, Turkish-Saudi trade plummeted against the backdrop of the fallout over the Khashoggi question and sharp differences over the handling of the crises in Libya and Syria and the maritime border disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TURKSTAT), total exports from Turkey to Saudi Arabia fell from $3.2 billion in 2019 to $2.5 billion in 2020 and then to just $235 thousand in November 2021. During the same period, Saudi exports to Turkey reached a high of nearly $3.5 billion in 2021.
Apart from economic considerations, Turkey has eyed an opportunity to increase its presence in the Gulf in anticipation of a reconciliation between the Gulf countries and Iran. Baghdad has hosted five rounds of talks so far between Tehran and Riyadh, which severed diplomatic relations in 2016. Ankara’s rapprochement with the Gulf is part of a larger process of countering the domestic impact of its interventionist policies in the Arab region and elsewhere, which have left Turkey more isolated than ever. It is simultaneously a way to offset its ongoing tensions with the US and the West in general. The dispute persists between Washington and Ankara over the latter’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems, which led to Turkey’s suspension from the Pentagon’s F-35 programme. Biden, moreover, has criticised Erdogan’s authoritarian practices. Similarily, the EU parliament recently voted to suspend Turkey’s EU accession talks on the grounds of Turkey’s declining record on human rights and rule of law.
A long undercurrent of tensions with Washington also figures prominently among the factors informing Riyadh’s decision to restructure its foreign relations, especially with other Middle Eastern countries. According to Western media reports, the situation with the US has reached a point where the crown prince actually refused to take phone calls from Biden, who has been nagging him to increase oil production to make up for shortages of Russian oil in Europe against the backdrop of Western sanctions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine and soaring fuel and energy costs in the US. According to reports, the Biden administration also wants Riyadh to issue a more explicit condemnation of the Russian intervention in Ukraine.
The turning point in Saudi-Turkish relations marked by the crown prince’s visit to Ankara encapsulates U-turns in the positions of both sides. While Saudi Arabia could use Turkey on its side in its power struggle with Iran, Turkey desperately needs investments, currency swaps and other financial measures to boost the economy ahead of the general elections scheduled for the middle of next year. Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party he heads have experienced steady declines in the polls in large measure due to the country’s economic straits and the boomerang effects of interventionist foreign policies.
A version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.