Upon the invitation of the Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman, who ascended to the throne after the death of King Abdullah on Jan.23, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is scheduled to pay an official visit between Feb. 28 and March 2 to the kingdom.
According to the statement released from Erdoğan’s office, during the visit, leaders of the two countries are expected to discuss the regional developments as well as the “different aspects of the strategic relations” between Ankara and Riyadh.
While the news of Erdoğan’s visit to the kingdom was released, there were also several reports circulating in the media claiming that King Salman’s first official visit abroad would be to Turkey.
Erdoğan’s suspending his African tour for a day in order to attend the funeral of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Turkey’s declaring a day of mourning over king’s death was interpreted by several observers as Turkey’s will to mend the ties with the Arab country.
Needless to say, the regional and international developments in the past decade have played a significant role in improving of Turkish-Saudi relations. Particularly the emergence of new challenges in the region has contributed substantially for the start of a new era in Turkish-Saudi relations.
During the Arab uprisings, which changed the course of the Middle Eastern history, Ankara and Riyadh managed to cooperate on certain fields in order to secure their own interests as well as to enhance their positions in the politically-fragile region.
However, they confronted in Egypt when the military takeover by General Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi ousted Egypt’s first-democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi in mid-2013. Turkey’s staunch support to the Muslim Brotherhood leader, who enjoyed close ties with Turkish leadership during his one-year-presidency, was not welcomed by Saudi kingdom which regarded the Muslim Brotherhood movement as terrorist organization.
Following his African tour, Turkish president stated that although Turkey and Saudi Arabia had difference of opinion regarding several regional issues, Turkish side did not want differences to affect bilateral ties.
President Erdoğan-King Salman meeting is crucial as it would provide a chance for both sides to once more highlight their concerns with the current developments in the region and discuss the areas of cooperation for both sides.Sinem Cengiz
Despite having different political motivations regarding the region, both Ankara and Riyadh are aware that there are several problems in the region that necessitate a close cooperation between two countries. Among the first of all is Syria, where two countries seek for the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, while this is the common interest of Ankara and Riyadh, the post-Assad era is the point that two sides separate.
Beside Syria, the turmoil in Yemen, ISIS threat, increasing Iranian role in the region, instability in Iraq, Libya, Palestine and Lebanon pushes Turkey and Saudi Arabia to cooperate in order to secure regional stability and security. Particularly Syria and Libya are highly expected to dominate the talks between Erdoğan and King Salman.
Regarding Iran, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia considers the rising Iranian influence in the region as problematic. However, both sides have their own reasons for considering Iranian influence in the region as a threat. Riyadh is concerned over an adverse impact of Iranian influence on its own Shiite population and in Yemen, which has become an area of proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran. On the other side, Turkey is discomfort of Iranian policies in Syria and Iraq, which became an area of influence to Tehran following the U.S. invasion of 2003.The increasing Iranian influence in the region seems to necessitate cooperation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two Sunni heavyweights in the Middle East.
With regard to Palestine, both Ankara and Riyadh supports the establishment of a dialogue process between the Palestinian groups, Fatah and Hamas, the end of Palestinian- Israeli conflict with peaceful ways. Palestinian issue, which is a tough ordeal for the region, is a significant area that requires Turkey-Saudi Arabia cooperation. This cooperation is essential for the peace of the region – which is a common goal of the two countries.
In this regard, President Erdoğan-King Salman meeting is crucial as it would provide a chance for both sides to once more highlight their concerns with the current developments in the region and discuss the areas of cooperation for both sides. Most importantly, it would be an opportunity to discuss different points of view regarding Egypt.
Prior to Erdoğan’s visit, high-level visits by the Turkish officials to the kingdom took place in order to prepare the ground for the president’s visit. Firstly, Interior Minister Efkan Ala visited Riyadh in mid-February to meet his Saudi counterpart Mohammed bin Nayef. In the meeting, the regional security problems, with a particular focus on Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and the bilateral cooperation was discussed. Following Ala’s visit, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan visited the kingdom to address the first consultative meeting of the G20 business sector at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI). In that visit, Babacan stated that Turkey is planning to offer citizenship to Saudi businessmen.
Beside Riyadh, Erdoğan is also expected to visit two of the holiest places in Islam: Mecca and Medina in order to perform his Umrah pilgrimage. One interesting part of the visit is that while Erdoğan will be performing his Umrah duty, Egypt’s Sisi will be holding talks with King Salman in Riyadh. The situation in Egypt and the future of the Turkish-Egyptian relations is highly expected to dominate the talks.
Regarding the importance of Erdoğan’s visit, Abdullah AlShammri, a Saudi political analyst on Turkey-Saudi relations and a former diplomat, states that King Salman and Erdoğan would “administrate the argument between the two countries regarding Egypt” and might agree to work together to strength coordination between the two main countries in the Middle East. “There is a general belief in Saudi Arabia that there is no real tension with Ankara except for Turkish harsh position against Egypt,” says AlShammri.
According to Alshammri, when King Salman became the new king, he started a real change to evaluate Riyadh’s relations with the main powers in the region and that Turkey was the first priority to rethink about.
Following King Salman’s taking the power in the kingdom; there were diverse opinions among observers with some arguing that there would be no change in Saudi policies regarding the region, some claiming that the kingdom may review its policies on some regional issues, including Egypt. King Salman’s ascending to throne also raised several question over a possible Turkish-Saudi rapprochement, with some experts arguing that Turkey will use the change in Saudi leadership as an opportunity for mending fences with the kingdom.
It may be too early to predict on how Turkish-Saudi relations will develop during the rule of Salman. However, it would be in the best interest of both Turkey and Saudi Arabia not to risk the relations that they have developed in the past decade. Ankara and Riyadh should shape their foreign policies according to their own best interests, while also considering several areas of cooperation.
Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst based in Athens. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. She was also the former diplomatic correspondent for Today’s Zaman newspaper, English daily in Turkey. She is currently researching on Turkish-Saudi relations to complete her MA in International Relations. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz