Saudi-Turkey rapprochement highlighted by Erdogan visit

May 13, 2022

Executive Summary

  • A visit by President Erdogan to Saudi Arabia in late April highlights existing efforts by both sides to normalize and expand ties following several years of bilateral tensions related to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the blockade of Qatar, and deep-seated ideological differences.

  • In his first visit since 2017, Erdogan’s meeting with Crown Prince Bin Salman forms the culmination of a bilateral rapprochement effort that has been ongoing since early 2021, when the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar was lifted.

  • Like the Turkish outreach to the UAE, Egypt and Israel, the rapprochement is predominantly driven by economic considerations amidst rising inflation and deteriorating export ties.

  • Unlike Turkey-UAE ties, rapprochement with Saudi Arabia is still largely symbolic and it remains to be seen whether cooperation will be strengthened. Underlying strategic differences persist, and the relationship remains sensitive to rapidly shifting geopolitical dynamics, with both sides expected to adopt a cautious position moving forward.

First visit by Erdogan since 2017 marked by warm rhetoric

In a much-anticipated visit to mend ties with Saudi Arabia, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Jeddah on 28 April – the first state visit by the president since 2017. Prior to the meeting, Erdogan said he expected the visit to launch “a new era of collaboration” and that expanding economic and defense ties is in “our mutual interest.” 

Meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman in Jeddah, Erdogan said the two sides discussed ways to enhance cooperation while highlighting “the great economic potential between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.” According to an official readout, the president also expressed support for Saudi Arabia’s bid to host Expo 2030, with separate reports claiming the meeting between Erdogan and the Crown Prince lasted several hours. Statements from Saudi officials were characteristically limited, but Saudi state-linked media claimed the two sides reviewed ways to develop ties in various fields, without specifying further. Warm rhetoric was coupled with images of Erdogan and Crown Prince Salman embracing each other during the reception, and of Erdogan later performing Umrah at the Makkah Grand Mosque.

As previously discussed, the visit forms the culmination of a bilateral rapprochement effort that has been ongoing since early 2021, when the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar was lifted. The outreach to Saudi Arabia is also consistent with Turkish efforts to reassess ties with other regional stakeholders, including the UAE, Israel and Egypt. Rumors of a visit to Saudi Arabia have been circulating since late 2021 when Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Ankara and reportedly signed a multi-billion-dollar investment agreement. A decision by the Turkish Ministry of Justice to transfer the trial of 26 individuals involved in the assassination of Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi – a key issue of contention between the two sides – was widely seen to have paved the way for the visit in late April as part of a wider Turkish outreach to the Gulf states.

Like the normalization effort with Israel, Egypt and the UAE, rapprochement with Saudi Arabia is widely seen as being primarily driven by economic considerations amidst rising inflation and currency fluctuations that continue to significantly affect Turkish exports. According to statistics released by the official Turkish Statistical Institute on 5 May, the rate of inflation in Turkey increased to nearly 70% in April in comparison to the same period the previous year – marking the highest year-to-year increase in consumer prices recorded since 2002. Incentives to boost bilateral investment and export ties with regional stakeholders are widely regarded as an effort to alleviate domestic criticism and revitalize significant trade partnerships affected by geopolitical tensions in recent years. As a partial response to Ankara’s previous determination to investigate the killing of Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia imposed an informal boycott of Turkish goods in 2020 and the volume of Turkish exports to the country declined from 2.5bn in 2020 to 265mn in 2021. In January, Saudi Arabia lifted the boycott and trade levels have since resumed, paving the way for a deepening of related ties that may help alleviate economic woes.

The economic motives underpinning the rapprochement were also highlighted before the visit when Turkish Trade Minister Mehmet Mus held talks with his Saudi counterpart, with subsequent readouts affirming intent to develop investment ties. While short of the agreements signed with Abu Dhabi, the rhetoric and gestures toward Saudi Arabia signal intent in Ankara to replicate the rapid economic integration that has characterized its engagement with the UAE since bin Zayed’s visit.

Rapprochement part of wider shift but remains sensitive to wider dynamics

Even with the aforementioned considerations in mind, economic drivers should not be overestimated, and the scope of future Turkey-Saudi cooperation remains to be seen. As discussed by some observers, Saudi-Turkey trade accounts for a relatively small portion of Turkey’s international trade exchanges and Foreign Direct Investment, which have been relatively low even at times when relations were positive. The impact of the informal Saudi boycott is not insignificant but is unlikely to solely account for the recent shift in Turkey’s approach to Saudi Arabia, which is more appropriately seen as part of a wider reassessment of regional ties to alleviate perceptions of Turkey’s isolation. Sustaining the previously confrontationist approach in the region has proven both geopolitically and economically costly, and the recent reorientation may well be underpinned by the realization that Turkey will stand to benefit from a more conciliatory position. 

Whereas Turkey-UAE ties are being increasingly formalized through partnership agreements, MoUs, and investment deals, the Saudi rapprochement is still largely rhetorical, and it remains to be seen whether ties will expand into more substantial cooperation in key areas. Statements issued in connection with Erdogan’s visit were characteristically vague and void of any details regarding more substantial commitments, indicating that both sides remain content at this point to keep the rapprochement largely symbolic.

Such caution is rational given that relations between the two sides have always been shaped by wider geopolitical dynamics that, when shifted, may again affect relations moving forward. Aside from the Khashoggi assassination, broader strategic tensions between the two sides were rooted in conflicting positions on key regional issues, including Turkey’s support for revisionist movements during the Arab spring; the backing of Qatar during the blockade; and the war in Libya. The US’ reassessment of ties following the presidential transition in 2021 and the adoption of a more conditional policy towards Saudi Arabia, formed additional considerations that were assessed to have discouraged the more confrontational approach by Riyadh towards regional adversaries.

While current dynamics are largely conducive to normalization, the relationship remains sensitive to sudden shifts in regional currents. More importantly, underlying strategic differences between the two sides remain a point of contention that may well reignite a more adversarial relationship moving forward. This notably includes competition in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea; Saudi Arabia’s growing strategic ties with Greece; and Turkey’s continued support for civil society movements across the region which, despite the dissipation of Arab-spring related tensions, remains viewed by Riyadh as a source of instability in the region. In the short term, however, the reduction in strategic tensions remains a positive indicator and is expected to continue in light of the warm rhetoric surrounding Erdogan’s visit.

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