The Saudi Side of the Story: Motivations and Prospects of Rapprochement in the Gulf

The final months of 2021 witnessed a flurry of intensive diplomatic activity from Gulf states towards their erstwhile rivals. Beginning in this period, the new regional trend moved towards pragmatism with neighbors and external actors in which bilateral relations were redefined by political, social, and economic priorities. The Gulf actors are now re-establishing bilateral relations through a language of “good neighborliness,” which is shown actively through high-level diplomatic attempts on the ground,  and no longer only at the level of discourse. Although the Gulf leaders underlined the importance of “Gulf strength, cohesion, and cooperation as well as Arab depth and stability” after the Al-Ula Summit, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) began to construct their foreign policy agendas independently from one other, even sometimes challenging each other’s economic and political interests. This process also directed these states to re-evaluate the process of calming political tensions with Turkey.

The Post-Al-Ula Re-orientation of GCC Politics 

Similar to the Al-Ula reconciliation with Qatar after two and a half years of blockading the country, the UAE’s diplomatic opening with Turkey emerged out of regional, domestic, and international factors and intra-Gulf dynamics that shifted into peace and stability-oriented policies. This region-wide change was also encouraged by the new United States (US) administration’s stance towards regional rivalries. The primary outcome of this policy shift has been observed in how Emirati decision-makers have relinquished making negative statements towards Turkey. On the other side, the rapprochement process between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, while steady, is moving more slowly. As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently announced his visit to the kingdom in February, the de-escalation process promises to re-establish contracts and agreements between the two, particularly in the economy and defense sectors.    

Due to the Biden administration’s rhetorical distancing from the kingdom since January 2021, Saudi Arabia has aimed to assert its image as a rational actor in foreign policy, maintaining regional peace and stability in the international community’s view. The Kingdom’s assertive foreign policy style created a perception of isolation among Saudi decision-makers, particularly since the surfacing of disagreements with the UAE since July 2021 over the OPEC crisis. This encouraged the kingdom to promote a discourse of stability, cooperation, and mutual economic interest in its bilateral relations with non-Gulf actors, such as Turkey and Iran, with different levels of intensity and motivations. In the Saudi diplomatic process with Turkey, the kingdom aims to maintain its rhetorical superiority as the effective stabilizer of the region. The new facets of intra-Gulf rivalries lead the kingdom to be determined to not let any other Gulf state diminish its claims of regional leadership.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman redefined the national narrative of the “fourth Saudi state,” one whose income will be diversified through the Saudi people’s domestic investments, which would imprint the kingdom’s economy, energy sector, and foreign policy. This vision, well known as Saudi Vision 2030, would involve a re-engineering of the Saudi state’s reputation and mechanisms to soften the Saudi public’s discontent with social and economic reforms. The regional impact of this narrative shift was observed in the emerging conflicts and rivalries among the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia’s vision to establish itself as a regional hub for investment, tourism, and entertainment through ambitious developmental projects like NEOM, AlUla, and Amaala, especially led to a silent rift with the UAE. This competition was particularly cemented with Saudi Arabia’s legal decision to forbid the public sector from opening any business with a company licensed out of the kingdom by 2024 to force multinational companies to move their regional headquarters to Riyadh. Many of these targeted companies are currently located in Dubai. The reconstruction of the Saudi tourism sector to extend beyond religious tourism creates another sense of quiet competition with the UAE that posits itself as a primary hub for tourism in the region. Although the kingdom has historically fared well in religious tourism, which accounts for 40 percent of tourist arrivals to the kingdom, the opening up of the tourism sector to compete at an international level constitutes a new sphere of economic activity for the kingdom.

Signs of Rapprochement

Despite Saudi-Turkey relations reaching peak level, particularly in the defense sector, just before the Trump administration, relations severely worsened after November 2018, following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Before the diplomatic openings of the Emirati side, Saudi Arabia had already given signals of rapprochement with Turkey after King Salman’s offer of humanitarian aid to the city of Izmir after the devastating earthquake that hit it in November 2020. It appeared to be a bid to claim the kingdom’s role as regional patriarch. In contrast to the confrontational rhetoric of high-level actors in the UAE, the Saudi leadership was careful to not reach an irreversible dead-end with Turkey. Instead, bellicose language towards Turkey was maintained through Saudi intellectuals, journalists, and non-governmental institutions during the unofficial boycott of Turkish goods in 2019. This led to a drop in Turkish exports to the kingdom  by 16.4% in 2020.

The first signal of rapprochement was observed in April 2021 when King Salman and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a phone call for Ramadan greetings, which was published in Saudi and Turkish newspapers as a positive development in relations. In May 2021, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Çavuşoglu visited the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Mecca and announced that both sides had sincere intentions to solve their problems in order to contribute to regional stability, peace, and prosperity. In November 2021, Saudi Trade Minister Majid Bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi and Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay met in Istanbul. Lastly, in December 2021, Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s deputy ministers of foreign affairs  Yavuz Selim Kiran and Waleed A. Elkhereiji, respectively, spoke on the phone to re-establish bilateral relations in favor of both states’ mutual interests.

The signals of rapprochement with Turkey even while their political differences remained ongoing demonstrated the change in Saudi foreign policy rhetoric from one built on personal rifts to a rational one defined by economic interests. However, to the contrary, one might also relate the chances of reconciliation as due to Erdogan’s embracing of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, whereas he would previously only speak to King Salman in an official capacity. However, Saudi Arabia conceives the development of bilateral relations with Turkey within a long-term plan. Unlike the Emirates, in Saudi governance foreign policy discourse is applied into practice with a slower pace. 

The change of foreign policy discourse was also observed among Turkish decision-makers who began making positive statements about restoring relations with Egypt, Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. The sharp decline of the Turkish lira towards the end of 2021 constituted one of the reasons that led Turkish decision-makers to keep silent over regional disagreements with the Gulf states. To illustrate, when Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Foreign Minister of the UAE, called for an end to the Turkish invasion in northern Syria following a visit to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in early November, Turkish diplomats’ silence demonstrated their strategic tolerance of regional divergences at a time of economic crisis.


The change of mood among Gulf leaders towards rapprochement demonstrated the new tendency among GCC countries of applying a stability-oriented economic policy with neighbors and external actors even at expense of each other’s interests. The Gulf states seem to be entering a new period of maintaining a rhetoric of common destiny and unity at the institutional level, while constructing their bilateral relations independent from each other’s regional security and economic concerns.

During the 42nd GCC Summit on December 14th, 2021, the Gulf states emphasized their continuing regional security concerns over Iran’s ballistic and nuclear empowerment. The Gulf states’ lack of certainty in US support in regional conflicts even urged them to recall Article 2 of the Joint Defense Agreement that calls all GCC states to interfere through joint force against any attempts targeting the security of a GCC member. The US’s hesitancy to get directly involved in Middle Eastern regional conflicts and the possibility of a renewed nuclear deal with Iran created a feeling of isolation among Saudi decision-makers. Furthermore, it triggered the kingdom to initiate its de-escalation process with Iran, which was observed through several meetings between officials from both sides.