Whither Rapprochement? Understanding Saudi-Turkish relations 

On the 5th of January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that he would be visiting Riyadh in the coming weeks in an effort to improve diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Erdogan’s comments reflect a broader discourse around a thaw in relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia which have been fraught over the past decade. This tension has been due to the fact that each country was on the opposite side of the Qatar blockade, Islamism and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. In the years that followed, the two states – and their leaders – were diametrically opposed to one another, driven by different visions of regional order. 

Despite these serious points of tension, in recent weeks rhetoric from Ankara and Riyadh points to a diplomatic thaw, emerging from regional developments and political and economic pressures in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Such rhetoric suggests a marked shift in the actions of both states, emerging from developments in regional affairs. Yet, to speak of a rapprochement between the two states is premature despite the possibilities that such a thaw would provide. 

Signs of a thaw?

For Saudi Arabia, the benefits of such a rapprochement are obvious. Riyadh finds itself increasingly isolated as it faces a range of serious strategic challenges emerging from regional developments and uncertainty about the future. The quagmire of conflict in Yemen has taken a toll on the Kingdom’s economic capabilities and international legitimacy amidst allegations of war crimes. These economic challenges have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and the failure to attract large-scale investments for its economic reform projects. 

Uncertainty in Lebanon amidst ongoing protests against the sectarian organisation of political life has irreparably damaged long-time Saudi allies, prompting them to turn beyond the Hariri family and the Sunni community broadly, exploring the possibility of working with Christian leaders such as Samir Geagea, the Lebanese forces executive chairman.

While the Kingdom has engaged in talks with its long time rival Iran, these talks remain ongoing and at a precarious position. With the international community working to resolve the nuclear crisis, uncertainty as to how the Kingdom will be affected regardless of the outcome remain. Exacerbating such concerns is a complex relationship with the United States. Whilst Washington has served as the Kingdom’s security guarantor since 1945, President Biden’s approach to Saudi Arabia – much like President Obama previously – has caused concern in Riyadh, prompting questions about the Kingdom’s ability to rely on Washington as its security guarantor. Such a conclusion points to an existential transformation in the Kingdom’s security and defence strategies requiring a dramatic re-evaluation of relations with neighbouring states.

In such a climate, improving relations with Turkey would have a clear benefit for Saudi Arabia. Despite its economic challenges and domestic uncertainty, Turkey retains the status of a regional power who can provide support for the Kingdom. At a time of regional uncertainty and instability, cultivating relations with a key regional player will serve to embolden the Kingdom. Despite the posturing of the UAE and Qatar, only Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Israel can lay claim to regional power status. Of these states, Turkey appears the easiest to forge a positive relationship with; ongoing talks with Iran are yet to yield success while a formal relationship with Israel will prove problematic for many both in the Arab and Islamic worlds.   

Cultivating a positive relationship with Turkey would then embolden the Kingdom, helping it to escape a regional stalemate. It would also provide important political, diplomatic, and strategic cover on the world stage, allowing political space for manoeuvrings. Additionally, at a time when the Kingdom is reliant upon Greece for military support – not known as a military heavyweight – Turkey’s knowledge and experience of military activities would be a great asset. Additionally, the economic benefits of improved relations would be of benefit to both states, each of whom is facing a complex set of socio-economic challenges at home.

Too much, too soon?

Yet, despite these areas of possibility and the strategic reasons for improving relations, there remain a number of serious obstacles which need to be overcome before a rapprochement can be brought to pass. These obstacles not only relate to competing visions of regional order but also to the complexities of personalities. 

As the past decade has shown, Turkey under Erdogan and the AKP has championed the cause of Islamists across the region, supporting Islamist causes in their foreign policy agendas whilst also offering safe haven to members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were forced to flee Egypt throughout 2013 and 2014. Along with Doha, Istanbul became a home away from home for members of the Ikhwan. When taken together, this support for Islamists raised serious concerns for Saudi Arabia and particularly the UAE who have long been opposed to an Islamist presence in regional affairs. 

Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and long-time critic of the Crown Prince, was also connected to the Ikhwan’s network in Istanbul. As an Islamist advocating for democratic reform in the Kingdom, Khashoggi was viewed with much trepidation by many in Riyadh. The decision to kill him – an act that caused international outcry and seriously damaged Saudi Arabia’s international reputation – deepened tensions between the two states. Yet a personal component emerged here, as Erdogan promised a businesswoman that he would solve tensions with Saudi on January 3rd. Instead, Saudi Arabia engaged in diplomatic visits to Cyprus and Greece, long-time Turkish rivals. On the 5th of January, Erdogan declared that he was waiting for the King to allow him to visit Saudi Arabia, yet the wait continues.

While Erdogan and other AKP officials have softened their rhetoric towards Riyadh, declaring themselves happy with how Saudi Arabia had handled the Khashoggi matter and expressing a desire to visit, much damage has been done. Many in official circles in Riyadh were deeply angry at Erdogan and the way he handled the affair. This anger pervaded the ‘Saudi street,’ with a large number of Saudis expressing anger towards the Turkish leader and Turkey as a whole. Although King Salman expressed hope at an improvement in relations, such remarks were conspicuously absent from the Crown Prince, pointing to deep personal anger. An Arab League statement on Turkey also pointed to Saudi recalcitrance towards any improvement in relations. 

Additionally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine posed a serious challenge to Middle Eastern states whose interests in the conflict are multifaceted, requiring hedging between wheat – and food insecurity – and broader opportunities as part of the OPEC+ group. Historically, Middle Eastern states had deftly manoeuvred between superpowers, yet the invasion of Ukraine poses serious challenges for those initially not seeking to pick sides.

Whilst initially passive towards the Russian invasion – perhaps sending a message to Washington in the process – in recent days Riyadh’s stance appears to have hardened, pointing to a realignment with the US in the process. In contrast, Turkey’s relationship with Russia means that developments in Ukraine necessitate a complex foreign policy approach, being pro-Kyiv whilst not being anti-Russia. Ankara has sought to mediate between the two sides – in a boost to Turkish influence – yet the complexity of Turkish-Russian relations means that balancing is untenable in the long-term, putting greater emphasis on the need for stronger relations with states in the Middle East.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine may also affect the Vienna Talks aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. While many were of the opinion that the talks were “all but finalised,” Russian demands for guarantees that trade with Iran would not be affected by sanctions imposed following the invasion of Ukraine added an additional layer of complication. The JCPOA remains central to Saudi engagement with neighbouring states. Turkey has long been an outspoken critic of sanctions on Iran, much to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia. While efforts to move away from Russian oil may open up opportunities for Saudi Arabia to reassert influence in the corridors of power across Western capitals, the revived JCPOA would also allow Iranian oil to hit the market, lowering prices in the process. For Saudi Arabia, Israel and others, such a deal would embolden Iran, exacerbating tensions across the region in the process. In contrast, and to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia, Turkey views the JCPOA as integral to regional order and economic development.

A Cumulative Impact?

As a result of these, Turkish declarations about a thaw in relations and intentions to visit Riyadh were not well received, with anger amongst Saudi officials about Erdogan’s tone and words, despite a formal invitation. While some Saudis I have spoken to expect Erdogan’s visit to take place in the final 10 days of Ramadan – a time of spiritual significance and an opportunity to put shared religious ties above political difference – such a visit is yet to be officially confirmed.  

Overcoming the legacy of distrust – both with regard to Islamism and the personal dimension – will undeniably have positive benefits for both states, consolidating Saudi Arabia’s position in the region, boosting both economies, and offering a degree of stability in an increasingly precarious regional security environment. 

Despite the many positive benefits of a thaw in relations, such developments appear some way off. The speed of rapprochement appears to reflect Saudi distrust towards Turkey in light of the tensions outlined above. Fundamentally, the AKP remains an Islamist party and the legacy of suspicion and anger continues to be seen across the Kingdom. Addressing this poses a serious challenge, but one that must be resolved before ideas of rapprochement can be made real.