Turkish President Erdogan's visit to Saudi Arabia seeks to restore strained relations

Ankara has taken several concrete steps to improve ties with Riyadh

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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travels to Saudi Arabia on Thursday as the countries seek to re-establish relations after a period of tension and stagnation.

Mr Erdogan has confirmed that he would meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and said his visit is aimed at opening a new chapter with the kingdom on a basis of mutual respect and trust.

His visit is seen as the most tangible step by Turkey to seek better relations with several countries in the region, including the UAE, Israel and Egypt.

The Turkish president's last visit to Saudi Arabia was in 2017 during which he met King Salman and performed Umrah.

Officials in both countries have been working on a rapprochement for months, with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visiting Saudi Arabia in May last year.

Turkey’s ties with Riyadh and a host of Arab countries were strained by Ankara’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the unrest and protests witnessed across the Middle East after 2011.

Riyadh and Ankara also took different positions on dealing with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Turkey and Egypt held talks last September with a view to normalising relations that were strained after the Egyptian military removed Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi from the presidency in 2013. According to a joint statement, the talks addressed "several regional questions like the situation in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Palestine" as well as the East Mediterranean, where massive natural gas reserves have been discovered.

Earlier this month, Ankara backed the transfer to Riyadh of the trial of Saudi suspects in the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the consulate in Istanbul — a move analysts believe is another sign that relations are thawing.

Saudi Arabia has already tried and convicted several senior intelligence and political officials over what it says was a rogue operation.

While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said he was ultimately responsible for the failures that led to the killing, authorities have categorically denied he ordered it.

Escaping the prism of zero-sum games

Mr Erdogan is seeking to boost his country’s economy, which is struggling with inflation above 50 per cent and the sharp devaluation of the lira, which has lost more than 40 per cent of its value against the US dollar.

The global economic impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine is likely to add to Ankara’s financial woes. The economic crisis has already been deepened by the coronavirus pandemic.

The diplomatic efforts by Turkey will help it face its perilous financial crisis, analysts say.

“Both Turkey and Saudi have much potential to benefit from a rapprochement. As Turkey’s economy suffers from a serious crisis, Saudi investment and more trade between Turkey and wealthy Gulf Co-operation Council members such as Saudi Arabia can help the Turks amid this difficult period," Giorgio Cafiero, chief executive of the Washington-based consultancy Gulf State Analytics, told The National.

In February, the Turkish leader visited the UAE, reciprocating a visit in November last year by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The UAE formed then a $10bn fund to support investments in Turkey.

The UAE and Turkey officially began talks in Istanbul on Tuesday for a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (Cepa) to expand trade and investment ties and support economic recovery and growth across the region.

In 2020, Turkey’s exports to Saudi Arabia reached about $2.62 billion, from $605 million in 1995, while Saudi exports to Turkey – mainly fuel products – stood at about $1.8 billion, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

The end of a rift in the GCC in January 2021, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt restored ties with Qatar after more than three years, will give further impetus to better relations between Riyadh and Ankara.

Escaping the prism of "zero-sum games" in the Gulf can lead to win-win outcomes for the GCC states as well as Turkey, says Mr Cafiero.

"Ultimately, it is important to appreciate the extent to which the AlUla summit [hosted by Saudi Arabia] of January 2021 has helped the Middle East move past a period in which Muslim countries outside the GCC came under much pressure to pick between the Qatar/Turkey and Saudi/UAE blocs," he said.

The global and regional dynamics are being transformed in the middle of Russia's war on Ukraine and growing reservations and concerns in the region on how Washington tackles major issues including the Houthi attacks on Gulf states and Iran's controversial nuclear programme, which is being renegotiated by the Joe Biden administration.

If needed, Turkey could play an effective role alongside Iraq in the ongoing talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, counting on the recent progress in bilateral ties between Tehran and Ankara, says Mohsen Milani, the executive director of the Centre for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies.

"Turkey, like many other countries, can of course play a constructive role by persuading Tehran and Riyadh to accelerate the process of normalising their relations based on mutual respect and reciprocity," Mr Milani, the author The Making of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, told The National.

But, he clarified, it was unlikely that a Saudi-Turkey reset would see a major shift in how talks with Iran are progressing.

"Thanks to the Iraqi government, the bilateral talks between Tehran and Riyadh appear to be proceeding rather well in Baghdad and, therefore, there is no need to include Turkey as a mediator at this juncture," said Mr Milani, who is also professor of politics at the University of South Florida.

Updated: April 29, 2022, 3:26 AM
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