The Arab Peace Initiative provides important clues to Saudi foreign policy calculations, even if controversy over OPEC+ oil production cuts diverts attention to Saudi oil policy.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in Turkey June 22 as part of a regional tour including Egypt and Jordan. Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Ankara reciprocates a visit by Turkey’s president to Saudi Arabia in April, the first in five years. These two visits are part of a rapprochement effort that has been ongoing for more than a year and aims to restore relations between two regional heavyweights. The high-level diplomatic and political engagement between the Saudi and Turkish leaders comes in parallel with broader regional rapprochement efforts between several countries in the Middle East.
Even though both countries are broadly part of the same pro-U.S. camp in the Middle East, relations between Ankara and Riyadh deteriorated sharply after the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. While the Turkish government saw the fall of numerous governments in Arab republics as an opportunity to promote change, Riyadh supported the old status quo and viewed the unrest and instability as deeply threatening. Mutual antipathy also centered around a growing alliance between Turkey and Qatar based on support for the uprisings and, especially, Muslim Brotherhood-style Arab political movements.
After Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt initiated a boycott of Qatar in 2017, and following the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018, ties between Ankara and Riyadh deteriorated even more steadily and significantly. Diplomatic relations suffered, and economic relations decreased notably due to an informal Saudi boycott of Turkey’s exports. Despite diplomatic outreach that started as early as October 2020 and the 2021 Al-Ula agreement that ended the crisis with Qatar and sparked a Turkish rapprochement with the UAE, there was no major bilateral breakthrough until President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the kingdom.
In April, Erdogan met with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Mohammed bin Salman, in a major initiative that presaged the likely restoration of full relations. However, there was neither a joint concluding statement nor a declaration of agreements of any kind at the conclusion of the visit. This raised questions about the seriousness of the reconciliation, suggesting outstanding issues remained to be resolved before the two sides could fully reengage.
Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Ankara may resolve the ambiguity around the status of reconciliation efforts between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Erdogan has recently expressed interest in strengthening relations with the kingdom in energy, food security, health, investment, and business, as well as defense and security, and other sectors. Turkey’s ongoing economic hardships certainly provide an incentive to seek Saudi investment and commercial engagement. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s quest to diversify its foreign relations and economy, build a strong domestic defense industry, and counter increasing security challenges, particularly from Iran, has contributed to Riyadh’s interest in reconciling with Turkey.
At its peak, the volume of bilateral trade between Saudi Arabia and Turkey in 2015 constituted a mere 1.5% of Turkey’s international trade. In 2021, bilateral trade volume between Saudi Arabia and Turkey was valued at only around $3.5 billion. Saudi foreign direct investment in Ankara from 2005 to 2020 accounted for merely 1% of total FDI received by Turkey during that period. Similarly, at its peak, the number of Saudi tourists to Turkey constituted less than 2% of all tourists traveling to Turkey in 2018. Therefore, there are vast opportunities to boost economic relations, business ties, investments, and tourism between the biggest two economies in the Middle East.
At the regional level, both countries have been adjusting their foreign policies to adapt to international and regional dynamics, including the defeat of President Donald J. Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the Al-Ula agreement ending the Qatar crisis, an unevenly subsiding coronavirus pandemic, the end of the Arab Uprisings era, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been exploring how to mutually strengthen their regional influence and bolster their international images as influential players and cooperative Middle Eastern regional powers. To that end, Ankara and Riyadh have pursued much more complementary foreign policies, strengthening their regional cooperation and increasing their diplomatic options and maneuverability.
While a Riyadh-Ankara axis or partnership may be aspirational and a long way off, it could significantly alter regional dynamics, especially regarding possible security cooperation against common threats, particularly Iran and its regional network of armed proxies. Along with much of the region, both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are concerned that a potential revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement could enable Tehran to continue its expansionist agenda, finance and strengthen its proxies, and accelerate building its massive missile and drone arsenal. This could allow Iran to pose an even more serious threat to many countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Even if the Vienna talks fail, stronger cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Turkey could help contain Tehran and its destabilizing activities and thereby strengthen the hand of Iran’s regional competitors, including Riyadh and Ankara.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, in particular, is increasing anxiety in the region as it may undermine Moscow’s influence in critical theaters, potentially allowing Iran to fill in the vacuum. For example, in a May interview at the Hoover Institution, King Abdullah II of Jordan warned that Tehran and its proxies would fill any vacuum left by Moscow, which would greatly increase regional insecurity. The UAE and Israel have issued similar warnings about the Iranian threat.
In turn, Iranians have been discussing potential negative implications of repaired ties and greater cooperation between Riyadh and Ankara on Tehran’s influence in the region. Official and semi-official news outlets, including those close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and other Iranian journalists and academics have argued that a restoration of normal relations between Riyadh and Ankara will most likely undermine Iran’s influence in strategic Arab countries, such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon.
In particular, Tehran is anxious that closer cooperation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia on security matters might create a new center of gravity pulling other regional players toward it, thus creating a regional strategic bloc to counter Iran and its own network. This could even effectively include Israel, which has been improving its relations with Turkey since Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Ankara in March and has made moves to build more direct ties to Saudi Arabia, in addition to its rapidly developing broad-based strategic and security partnership with the UAE.
While there are many aspects to these growing links that are variously more durable or tentative, one of the key features of all of them is a shared desire to limit the further spread of Iran’s hegemony in the region. Whether Saudi-Turkish ties can become increasingly robust, and genuinely move beyond competition toward cooperation, will become clearer as the two countries take more concrete steps to strengthen partnerships following the crown prince’s visit.
While the interest in a rapprochement on both sides is evident so is a degree of mutual caution. Much of the impetus for this potential reconciliation derives from factors that are not entirely in the control of these governments, including changes in the political and strategic landscape of the Middle East and macroeconomic trends that are far more shaped by global than local or even regional forces. So, the likelihood is that prospects for a more thoroughgoing Saudi-Turkish rapprochement will be shaped as much by other actors over the long run as by Ankara and Riyadh themselves.
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