Time heals all wounds. But will it work with Saudi Arabia and Turkey?

Source: MENA

July 14, 2022 • 11:25 a.m. ET

Time heals all wounds. But will it work with Saudi Arabia and Turkey?

Pinar Dost and Jonathan Panikoff

Does time erase resentments or do national interests triumph over friendships and enmities? This seems true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

In 2018, President Erdogan pointed the finger at the Saudi royal family and accused the crown prince – without naming him – of the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkey aided the UN-led investigation by sharing evidence and opened a trial against the plotters, while the US intelligence community accused MBS of masterminding the killing.

Four years later, the first President Erdogan traveled to Riyadh in April to meet the Crown Prince, and on June 22 MBS’s visit to Turkey was his first since the murder of Khashoggi, following which relations diplomatic relations have been broken.

The Turkey-Saudi Arabia rapprochement is part of a broader strategy of normalization of Turkey with the countries of the region, which became possible after the end of the Gulf divide. Turkey first restored ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2021, then Israel this year, and now Saudi Arabia, while talks to normalize relations with Egypt are also progressing.

The rapprochement with all these countries is above all an attempt by Turkey to be included in the regional calculation and to end its regional isolation. The country has been isolated in the Eastern Mediterranean since the Donald Trump era, when Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and Israel formed a platform for cooperation on gas exploitation, to which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also provided support. Restoring ties with Saudi Arabia would also help Turkish relations with other Arab countries, especially with Egypt.

From Turkey’s point of view, important economic interests are at stake, given the problems of the Turkish economy, such as high inflation and the depreciation of the Turkish national currency, the lira. Improved economic relations with Saudi Arabia should help ease the economic pressure on Turkey. Bilateral trade and tourism have been severely affected in recent years and this normalization is expected to boost both trade and tourism between the two countries. The official end of the unofficial boycott imposed by Saudi Arabia on Turkish products, which began in 2020; Saudi Arabia resumed flights to Turkey after a two-year break in May; and the recent end of a travel ban in Turkey; are promising developments on this front. As a result of this rapprochement, much-needed Saudi investment is expected in Turkey, and in the future Riyadh may join other Gulf governments in currency swaps with Ankara.

For Saudi Arabia, the opportunity to restore better relations with Turkey is almost certainly seen by Riyadh as having few downsides. It is very likely that Riyadh considers that the tension in the relations harms Ankara much more than Saudi Arabia. For all intents and purposes, the trip likely reflects MBS’s view that Saudi Arabia has “won” the longstanding standoff with Turkey and that the rapprochement, as well as the upcoming visit of US President Joe Biden, will help the Crown Prince restore his global image.

Ultimately, Ankara’s decision, at Saudi request, to transfer the case against those accused of Khashoggi’s murder in April this year paved the way for the restoration of relations. Saudi Arabia has been at odds with much of Turkey’s foreign policy over the past decade. Riyadh’s decision in 2013 to back the coup that installed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, while toppling Muslim Brotherhood-linked president Mohamed Morsi, caused immediate tensions given Ankara’s backing for Mursi. So did various events later in the decade, including Erdogan’s decision to side with Qatar during the Gulf rupture; Turkey’s fluctuating engagement with Iran; and Ankara’s stance in favor of Libya’s Government of National Accord, in contrast to Riyadh’s support for Libyan army chief Khalifa Haftar.

Riyadh certainly does not see this rapprochement as the start of a new strategic alliance, but rather as the restoration of a transactional relationship that could benefit both Ankara and Riyadh. By restoring ties, MBS is paving the way for Ankara to re-engage more fully in the region – an opportunity the crown prince probably believes can also be seized in the future, if necessary. With the Turkish lira having lost more than half of its value since 2021, inflation over 60% and presidential elections scheduled for next year, MBS probably judges that Erdogan needs him more than he does. needs Erdogan.

For MBS, his visit to Ankara could allow Turkey to contribute to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to create its own drone revolution under Vision 2030, which emphasizes technology for economic growth and diversification. . Recently, for example, two Saudi manufacturers began co-producing a Turkish-made medium-altitude, long-endurance drone named Vestel Karayel, reflecting the potential for closer economic and defense ties, despite the myriad of other suppliers the Saudis are looking to. also have to rely on.

But, for Saudi Arabia, no benefit of rapprochement is more significant to Riyadh than the possibility of mitigating threats associated with its core security concern: Iran. Riyadh is likely hoping to capitalize on the momentum of its newly improved relations with Ankara cajoling Turkey to be more neutral than it was when the Gulf broke. The Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini isolation of Qatar during the breakup brought Turkey and Iran closer together, both supporting and seeking to serve as alternative economic outlets in Doha. This, despite Turkey and Iran disagreeing on critical regional issues – such as in Syria, where Iran has been Bashar al-Assad’s most aggressive supporter – while the Turks have backed the Syrian opposition. , highlighting the oft-repeated idiom that Turkey and Iran are “occasional allies, enduring rivals.”

It is no coincidence that this rapprochement comes at a time when Turkish-Iranian tensions are growing both in Iraq and in Syria. Turkey’s role in different regional conflicts over the past decade – in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine – demonstrates the counterweight that Turkey, along with other countries in the region, can provide against Iranian influence.

So far, Riyadh’s goals could materialize. In recent months, media and pro-Iranian media have warned of a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel and Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to no avail. Then, in June, Israeli tourists visiting Turkey were targeted by Iranian-sponsored terrorists, resulting in close cooperation between the Turkish-Israeli governments to prevent any attacks. Combined with the current rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Tehran is probably right to fear that Ankara will choose a path of neutrality in the short term in the growing hostilities between Iran and most of the region. It is an open question whether the Turkish-Saudi rapprochement can last in the long term, but, if so, it will likely be bad news for Iran and good news for the rest of the region.

Pinar Dost is deputy program director of the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY. Follow her on Twitter @pdosting.

Jonathan Panicoff is the Director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East.

Further reading

Image: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meet at the presidential palace in Ankara, Turkey, June 22, 2022. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO/Handout via REUTERS

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