Ankara, Turkey – Two years ago, relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia stood at one of the lowest points in the history of the two regional powers following the murder in Istanbul of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
His killing in October 2018 at the hands of Saudi agents in the kingdom’s consulate led to unprecedented Turkish denouncements of the Saudi government, highlighting what it said was the role of those close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, in the assassination plot.
Today, however, ties between Ankara and Riyadh appear on the verge of a return to cordiality, thanks in part to the detente between Turkey’s ally Qatar and the four-nation Saudi-led bloc that imposed an embargo on Doha in 2017.
Earlier this month, a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) saw Saudi Arabia and its allies agree to restore ties with Doha, including reopening airspace and borders.
The move was welcomed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “very beneficial”.
He added: “We hope that our position in Gulf cooperation will be re-established. This will make Gulf cooperation stronger.”
The rapprochement was followed by Qatar’s offer to mediate between Ankara and Riyadh.
“If these two countries see that the state of Qatar has a role in this mediation, then it is possible to do so. It is in everyone’s interest that there be friendly relations between these countries,” Qatari special envoy Mutlaq al-Qahtani said.
Prior to the GCC meeting, there had been signs of warming relations. At the start of a G-20 summit in November, Erdogan and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz spoke by telephone.
The leaders “agreed on keeping channels of dialogue open in order for bilateral relations to be enhanced and for issues to be settled”, the Turkish president’s office said.
The countries’ foreign ministers later met at an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation conference in Niger, after which Turkey’s Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted their partnership would “benefit not only our countries, but our entire region”.
Drastic US shift
While the split has defined many issues in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years, it was political developments on the other side of the world that played a major role in shaping fresh attitudes in Ankara and Riyadh, according to analysts.
“The main reason is that [former US President Donald] Trump lost the election and Saudi Arabia thinks that if [President Joe] Biden will put pressure on Riyadh then they have to look for new options,” said Ali Bakir, research assistant professor at Qatar University’s Ibn Khaldun Centre.
Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey anticipate the incoming Biden administration will drastically shift its priorities in the region, such as backing away from Trump’s policy of unrelentingly confronting Iran, and placing greater emphasis on human rights.
“If the Biden administration doesn’t put pressure on Riyadh, they won’t feel obliged to enhance their relations with Ankara,” Bakir said, adding Trump’s “endorsement” of Saudi actions in 2017 had led to the Gulf crisis.
Ahmet Evin, a political scientist at Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Centre, described Trump as “beholden” to the Saudi royal family.
“Without the Saudis aboard, Trump’s real estate empire would have gone bankrupt a while ago,” he said.
Both countries had “heavily invested politically in the Trump administration, partly because of personal relationships”, said Emre Caliskan, research fellow at the Foreign Policy Centre in London.
“Once Trump’s gone, they have to change the tone by shifting policies.”
The deterioration of Turkish-Saudi relations came to the fore following the 2011 Arab Spring, which saw Ankara throw its weight behind groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in the hope of installing governments sympathetic to Turkey’s Islamist-oriented ruling party.
Saudi Arabia and its allies are vehemently opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and have declared the group a “terrorist” organisation, causing members to flee their home countries and set up base in Istanbul.
Turkey’s support for Mohamed Morsi, who was elected Egyptian president in 2012 but deposed by the military a year later, was a prime example of Ankara’s backing for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The general who overthrew him and oversaw a crackdown on his supporters, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is backed by Riyadh.
The 2017 crisis saw Saudi Arabia and Egypt joined by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain to cut diplomatic ties and enforce a blockade on Qatar, accusing the country of supporting terrorism and being too close to their rival Iran.
Doha always denied these allegations.
They also issued a list of demands that included closing a Turkish military base in Qatar and ending all links to the Muslim Brotherhood and associated groups.
Erdogan condemned the sanctions, while the Turkish parliament agreed to deploy troops to Qatar. Turkey also arranged to ship food and other supplies to its beleaguered ally.
Subsequently, the Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians blocked Turkish media outlets, as well as popular Turkish soap operas, and there have been unofficial boycotts of Turkish goods.
The split was manifested in arenas such as Syria – where the Arab quartet moved to normalise relations with the Bashar al-Assad regime while Erdogan retained support for opposition fighters – and Libya’s conflict where Turkey backs the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord while Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt support renegade commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces.
‘Tug of war’
However, the “diplomatic war of attrition” is no longer sustainable, according to Eyup Ersoy, international relations faculty member at Turkey’s Ahi Evran University.
“The relentless tug of war in regional geopolitics has not brought a clear supremacy for each state against the other and continues to inflict political and economic costs,” he said.
On the economic front, Turkey is driven by the need to entice overseas investors to shore up its faltering economy and “requires a semblance of normalcy in its foreign policy to attract foreign investment”, Ersoy said.
Aykan Erdemir, senior director at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington, said improved trade relations with Saudi Arabia would ameliorate Turkey’s widening current account deficit.
“Since the 1980s, Saudi capital has played a pioneering role in a relatively insular Turkish market that was striving to attract foreign direct investment,” he added. “Politics have brought this relationship to a halt.”
Normalisation between the Saudi-led coalition and Qatar has removed a barrier to reconciliation between Ankara and Riyadh.
Another normalisation programme, this time between Israel and several Arab states, led by the UAE and Bahrain, threatened to “compound the current isolation of Turkey in regional geopolitics”, Ersoy said.
“Evasion of such an outcome is another contributing factor to a possible rapprochement with Saudi Arabia for Turkey.”
From Riyadh’s perspective, Turkey’s perceived “diplomatic withdrawal” – Ankara has toned down its rhetoric against regional rivals and stepped back in areas such as gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean – has appeased Saudi anxiety over Ankara’s “possible regional hegemony”, Ersoy added.
According to observers, however, potential obstacles persist.
Evin argued that Erdogan’s “ideological commitment” to the Muslim Brotherhood could hinder ties but Bakir said the movement no longer represented a threat to the Arab states.
“They were being used by the Emiratis and the Saudis as a pretext to justify their actions against Qatar,” he said.
Meanwhile, the apparent personal animosity between Erdogan and the Saudi crown prince, known as MBS, would have to be bridged to advance good relations, according to Caliskan.
“The biggest challenge is the personal relationship between Erdogan and MBS, which has been like a personal vendetta for Erdogan since the Khashoggi case,” he said.
Moves towards improved relations have not addressed underlying rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Turkey in Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, and other areas where Riyadh views Turkey’s footprint as a threat.
In the Gulf, strategic ties between Ankara and Doha, including Turkey’s military base, “will continue to present an unpalatable challenge for Saudi Arabia”, Ersoy said.
Iran and Turkey
Turkish collaboration with Iran – the two backed each other in the face of US sanctions and worked together with Russia to resolve the Syrian war – has been another source of alarm for the Saudis.
On the other hand, any moves by the Biden administration to ease pressure on Iran could see Saudi Arabia look to Turkey to help it restrain Tehran, the kingdom’s greatest rival.
Caliskan said the next six months could see the US or Qatar act as a mediator between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with greater cooperation led by financial affairs and followed by regional collaboration.
Ankara could also seek to compartmentalise its ties with Riyadh as it has done with Iran and Israel to separate financial links from politics, although Erdemir said: “It might prove to be more challenging to repeat the same kind compartmentalisation when it comes to Saudi Arabia, especially given how deep the rift over the Muslim Brotherhood is.”
Failing to address the root causes of disagreement will only lead to a “provisional” arrangement, according to Ersoy.
“In short, it would just be a truce.”