Turkey-Saudi Arabia Engagement: A Reality Check
Abstract: Turkey-Saudi Arabia’s strained relations got a reality check post-Abraham Accords that gave a new turn to the dynamics of the Middle East that initiated a chain of new relationships which were not considered in the previous decade. In this line, the emerging efforts to mend the strained relationships between Turkey and Saudi Arab received a boost following a meeting between President Erdogan and his Saudi counterpart Mohammed Bin Salman on April 28, 2022. Of course, the onslaught of COVID-19 pandemic and the economic spillover of the Ukraine-Russia war play a role in precipitating the hitherto conflict-ridden regimes to look for reconciliatory means for reconciliation for the mutual benefit of their strategic goals and economic survival in the global landscape confronted with severe economic challenges. However, recalibration of ties with Saudi-Arabia is dependent on Turkey’s willingness to join the Sunni Arab alliance that would be a key development in the geostrategic landscape of the Middle East.
Problem statement: If Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s revisit of relations is also linked to the shared concerns about Iran's threat to Ankara and Riyadh, how can the recalibration of relations mutually benefit to safeguard their respective interests?
Bottom-line-up-front: The outcome of the Iran nuclear deal and ongoing efforts between Saudi Arabia and Iran to normalize their relations would have their share on the prospective Turkey-Saudi relations.
So what?: Turkey -Saudi Arabia proximity may bring far-reaching changes in the region, including joining of hands against Iran’s hostile approach. In the finalization of the US-Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, Washington may expedite its withdrawal from the region, providing opportunities to China and Russia to exploit the situation by drawing Iran closer to them and confront the Sunni Bloc alliance by Saudi Arabia. Hence, Ankara needs to entrench itself strongly within the Saudi-alliance to oppose Iran, with Riyadh already facing Iranian threats to its national interests.
Ankara – Riyadh Relations
The signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 has initiated a chain of realignments in the Middle East. Conforming to these developments, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Riyadh on April 28 to meet his counterpart Mohammed Bin Salman. The visit was a pragmatic step after Ankara and Riyadh experienced years of strained relations. The visit underscored the efforts by Middle Eastern nations to recalibrate their strategies to safeguard their national /strategic interests amid tempestuous world order.
Erdogan’s visit to Riyadh, a well-thought-out move, aimed at softening bilateral relations, witnessed the shelving of demand for a Turkish trial of the Saudi assassins of Journalist Khashoggi in October 2018 in Istanbul by Erdogan. He had vowed Justice in Khashoggi’s murder, following leakage of the surreptitiously recorded conversation pointing involvement of Bin Salman’s closest aides. However, Turkey’s hostility curtailed its exports by 90 per cent to Riyadh, precipitating the downfall of the Turkish economy, further worsened by the COVID pandemic. Erdogan initiated a trial of 26 accused in absentia, though subsequently shelved the trial on April 7, 2022, focusing on mending Turkey-Riyadh relations.
Erdogan’s visit to Riyadh, a well-thought-out move, aimed at softening bilateral relations, witnessed the shelving of demand for a Turkish trial of the Saudi assassins of Journalist Khashoggi in October 2018 in Istanbul by Erdogan.
Notably, decreasing animosity between Saudi Arabia and Qatar brought Riyadh and Ankara closer. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt imposed a blockade against Doha’s relations with Tehran, support for Islamist groups and foreign policies inimical to their interests, but Ankara preferred to support Qatar. A key demand to end the blockade was the termination of Qatar-Ankara military cooperation, particularly Turkey’s military base posing a threat to Saudi Arabia, sharing a border with Qatar. However, with US pressure, Oman and Kuwait’s mediation helped remove the blockade and restored ties between the conflicting parties at Al Ula Summit in January 2021.
The Rapprochement in the Middle East
The ideological difference over their version of political Islam underscores the cautious approach between Riyadh and Ankara to foster normal bilateral relations in the region, ridden with complex inter-regional geopolitics. Earlier, Riyadh held Ankara instrumental in bringing Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to power in Egypt during the post-2013 coup as Ankara harboured Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership.
Against the backdrop of Turkey’s plummeting currency, the Lira dropped to an all-time low, with inflation at 70 per cent; the COVID pandemic; and Riyadh’s tacit concurrence to Abraham Accords, which fostered Israel’s closer relations with UAE and Bahrain - the Turkish economy faced a serious challenge, compelling Erdogan to revisit his approach towards the Gulf States. With the upcoming Presidential elections in Mid-2023, Erdogan is keen to give economic relief to the masses by drawing large investments from the monarchies like Riyadh.
Restoration of Ankara’s relations with Riyadh and Gulf States would address Turkey’s concerns in the Eastern Mediterranean, where regional stakeholders, including UAE, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are allying to challenge Turkey for redrawing Libyan maritime boundaries. With France supporting the anti-Turkey alliance, Ankara is aware of little chances of its success amid enhanced threats to its security and regional influence. Hence, adopting a pragmatic approach, Erdogan is resorting to diplomatic means to mend Turkey’s ties in the region, except for those with its long-term foes, Greece and Cyprus.
Restoration of Ankara’s relations with Riyadh and Gulf States would address Turkey’s concerns in the Eastern Mediterranean, where regional stakeholders, including UAE, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are allying to challenge Turkey for redrawing Libyan maritime boundaries.
Erdogan, since 2020, has been gradually shifting from ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ approach to a reconciliatory approach towards Gulf powers along with Egypt and Israel. The approach has drawn some economic relief to the country. Following a visit of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan’s to Turkey in November 2021, the UAE announced investments worth USD 10 billion in Turkey along with other agreements in sectors like health, tourism and technology. Additionally, signing a USD 4.9 billion currency swap agreement with UAE in January 2022 has given much-needed support to Turkey’s Lira. Further, Turkey’s improving relations with Israel may witness bilateral security cooperation against Iran, Hezbollah (in Lebanon) and other non-traditional security issues like piracy in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war, Riyadh is reaping benefits by drawing higher energy prices, expected to bring around USD 400 billion in revenue during 2022. Hence, focusing on Riyadh’s increasing economic clout, Erdogan is keen to restore normal relations with the Kingdom. Notably, Turkish exports had reduced from USD 3.2 billion in 2019 to around USD 200 million in 2021.
Iran – The Common Adversary
Geopolitically, Riyadh is likely to gain more than Turkey through warm bilateral relations as the former may persuade Turkey to join its regional Sunni Arab alliance to counter Shiite Iran. However, Turkey’s willingness to join the same is not known. However, the atmosphere for the alliance may be conducive for Turkey as Iran is facing sanctions from the West while uncertainty plagues the finalization of the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna. The Sunni bloc remains a lucrative alternative for Turkey’s tackling of economic vows. While Ankara eyes huge Saudi investments, the latter looks towards comprehensive defence and corporate ties with Turkey.
In addition, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis has brought to the fore faultlines within NATO, and Turkey is at the forefront of that. Turkey holds cooperative relations with both Kyiv and Moscow, and it has even received appreciation from Washington on its efforts towards mediating the conflict. However, the predicament for Turkey arose when Finland and Sweden decided to join NATO. Ankara rejected the bids of both nations to join NATO as Turkey accuses Sweden and Finland of hosting Kurdistan Worker's Party or PKK members and other entities, which Turkey views as security threats. Though many experts believe that the US will rectify Turkey's opposition to the bids in the coming days via some financial incentives, Erdogan’s unpredictable aggressiveness can cause a delay in Turkey's concurrence for admission of Sweden and Finland into NATO. This, in turn, will affect Helsinki's and Stockholm’s security needs vis-a-vis Russia. Notably sombre, Turkey mending its ties with Riyadh can be seen as an effort of Ankara to involve itself with the Saudi-led Sunni block that, in turn, will help Turkey neutralize a certain degree of threat that it perceives from Kurdish militias. Also, Ankara believes that Tehran covertly supports such militias in Syria and Iraq. Henceforth, the Saudi-led alliance will be instrumental in accounting Turkey’s interests regarding Kurdish militias to a large extent.
Given Ankara-Riyadh’s increasing cordial relations, coupled with major regional powers, including Israel, coming together, Iran would certainly view this as a challenge to its influence over regional theatre – comprising Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria – Iran had established over the years. Eventually, it would provide Riyadh with an edge over Iran in terms of influence in the region, providing the former leverage for negotiations on various issues.
Given Ankara-Riyadh’s increasing cordial relations, coupled with major regional powers, including Israel, coming together, Iran would certainly view this as a challenge to its influence over regional theatre – comprising Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria – Iran had established over the years.
Another important theatre of concern for Iran, following the Riyadh-Ankara rapprochement, is Iraq’s 1599 km border with Iran. Any diminution in influence over Baghdad would entail security connotations for Iran. Following the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2004, Iran has remained a major influencer in Iraq's political and security dynamics. Meanwhile, following increased attacks by Pro-Iranian Republican Guards Corps (IRGC) militias or the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), Turkish forces at expeditionary bases in northern Iraq are targeting PMUs units by combat drones. The souring Tehran-Ankara relations have the potential to turn into a low-intensity conflict providing opportunity for Saudi Arabia to exploit the situation to its advantage in Baghdad and dominate the region.
Filling a Security Vacuum
Turkey-Saudi Arabia, apart from mutual benefits, would also alter the dynamics of the Middle East in the coming years. The proposed gradual US withdrawal from the region has enhanced regional powers’ concerns over fending for themselves in terms of security and potential manoeuvring of the situation by Russia and China to the advantage of Iran. An alternative security architecture in the Middle East, comprising an alliance of Ankara, Riyadh Gulf nations, Israel and Egypt, can take shape, with their common concern being Tehran, which is using proxy militias to assert its ideology in the region.
However, the viability of the Turkish-Saudi reconciliation depends upon various factors linked to Iran, including the ongoing RiyadhTehran talks to normalize their relations. The successful outcome of the talks would dispel Iran’s concerns over Turkey-Saudi’s improving relations. Other ongoing talks over the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, although they do not involve Turkey and Saudi Arabia directly, their outcome certainly influence their foreign policies.
The successful outcome of the talks would dispel Iran’s concerns over Turkey-Saudi’s improving relations.
Apparently, the major determinant for Saudi-Turkey relations is Turkey’s willingness to be a part of Riyadh-led informal regional alliance with the cooperation of Israel and Egypt as an alternative security framework after the US withdrawal. Notably, until recent years proposed alliance members were at loggerheads with Ankara. Turkey, despite having differences with Tehran in some areas like regional influence or ideology, the threat posed by Iran is comparatively lesser than Riyadh. Hence, Saudi Arabia needs to offer some lucrative financial incentives to enable Turkey to weigh its cost-benefit ratio before joining hands with Turkey to make the Middle East more stable and secure.
Vaasu Sharma is a Foreign Policy Analyst based in India. He is associated with STEAR (Student Think Tank for Europe-Asia Relations), world's first Europe-Asia Student Think Tank, as an Events Officer. He holds a Master's Degree in International Relations with specialization in Diplomacy Studies from the University of Haifa in Israel. He was also associated with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and BRICS International Youth Forum from 2016 to 2017. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.
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