What was the significance of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other officials in Jeddah?
It marked another major step in repairing relations with an important economic power. President Erdogan is seeking to break Turkey out of the regional isolation that resulted from pursuing an unnecessarily provocative foreign policy that did little to advance Turkish interests in the Middle East. He has restored ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), conducted outreach to Israeli leaders, pursued talks with Egypt, and now reset Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia by visiting that country.
The Turkish government discovered that there are limits to its ability to impose its will on other regional powers, whether in the Eastern Mediterranean or in its support for Islamist movements around the Middle East. Turkey’s geopolitical isolation exacerbated its economic troubles when Saudi Arabia undertook a boycott of Turkish goods amid tensions over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Ankara’s support for Doha after the imposition of the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar in 2017. Now that Erdogan has reconciled with Saudi leaders, Turkish goods are likely to flow into the kingdom unimpeded, there is the potential for new Saudi investment in Turkey, and Riyadh could join other Gulf governments in currency swaps with Ankara.
How does Ankara’s decision to transfer the trial of Khashoggi’s suspected killers to Riyadh fit into the effort to mend ties? What does it mean for the fate of the suspects?
Transferring the Khashoggi case from Turkey to Saudi Arabia was clearly the price for Erdogan’s admission and the normalization of ties between the two countries. By transferring the case to Saudi authorities, it is unlikely that the suspects will be held accountable.
It was always a farce to believe that Erdogan and the Turkish government sought justice for Khashoggi on principle. After all, Erdogan is one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists. Turkey’s goal throughout the Khashoggi episode was to weaken Saudi Arabia in a geopolitical game of influence.
What issues have strained bilateral relations?
Besides the Khashoggi murder, there was Saudi Arabia’s support for the coup d’état in Egypt in 2013 and Turkey’s related support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan was a fierce critic of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi (though Turkey now seeks reconciliation with Egypt) and welcomed Egypt’s opposition, especially the Muslim Brothers, who set up media platforms to delegitimize the Egyptian leadership. Then there was Turkey’s support for Qatar after Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE blockaded the country in 2017 over Doha’s relations with Tehran, its support for Islamist groups, and the editorial line of Al Jazeera, among other issues. In all of this, Turkey held itself out as both a regional leader and a leading Muslim country, neither of which sat particularly well with Saudi Arabia, whose king derives legitimacy from being the custodian of Islam’s two holiest mosques, in Mecca and Medina.
What does Ankara hope to achieve by improving ties with Riyadh and other governments in the region now?
As noted, Turkey’s regional isolation affected the country’s economic well-being, with the lira having lost about half its value in 2021 and inflation currently running over 60 percent. As Turkey gears up for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023, Erdogan is looking for every possible opportunity to relieve the economic pressure on Turkish citizens. Also, there is a geopolitical imperative for Turkey to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and others. Ankara’s aggressive approach in the Eastern Mediterranean—which included prospecting for gas in Cypriot waters, drawing illegitimate maritime boundaries with Libya, and undertaking provocative naval maneuvers—compelled other regional powers to “bandwagon” against it. Egypt, Greece, and the Republic of Cyprus tightened relations, as did Cyprus, Greece, and Israel, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE joined these coalitions.
During the summer of 2020, Saudi and Emirati air crews trained with the Greek air force from bases on Crete. From the Turkish perspective, the lineup of countries opposing Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, which also included France, was a potential security problem. Without the military power to intimidate its opponents, the Turkish government has sought to weaken this anti-Turkey axis by changing its relations with all of these countries, with the exception of its longtime adversaries Greece and Cyprus.