Saudi Arabia and Turkey Return to Path of Partnership Amid New Middle East Realities

Before the ascension of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, before the various cleavages in the Middle East exploded to the fore, there was an incipient golden period of relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

In April 2016, Saudi King Salman visited Turkey and enjoyed ceremonial pomp and splendor that was extravagant even by glitzy Middle Eastern standards, as the two new nations headed for a powerful partnership as regional military and economic hegemons.

Now, after six years of recriminations, blockades, boycotts and proxy wars — all clouded by the brutal 2018 murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — the two nations appear to be back on the path to partnership.

Prince Mohammed visited Turkish President Erdogan in Ankara on Wednesday, the first full state visit by a Saudi leader to Turkey in more than six years and the highest-level visit by a Riyadh official since the murder. by Mr. Khashoggi.

The 36-year-old was greeted by Mr Erdogan at the main entrance to the presidential compound in Ankara with a 21-gun salute and blue-uniformed guards on horseback carrying the green flag of Saudi Arabia and the red flag of Turkey.

President Erdogan welcomes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to Ankara with a guard of honor

(AFP via Getty Images)

Prince Mohammed smiled as he kissed Mr Erdogan, far from the comments he would have made in 2018 in which Turkey was part of a “triangle of evil” that included Iran and extremist Islamist groups.

According to a joint statement issued Wednesday evening just before Prince Mohammed’s departure from the country, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have agreed to boost exchanges in a wide range of sectors, including tourism, real estate, transport, agriculture, high technology and health, as well as in the key areas of energy and petrochemicals.

The two countries also agreed to strengthen defense cooperation and increase commercial flights.

The crown prince’s visit came a day before Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss traveled to Ankara for security talks. Turkey plans to buy Eurofighter Typhoon warplanes produced by a British, German, Spanish and Italian consortium.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and heir to the kingdom’s throne and oil wealth arrived in Ankara after visits to Egypt and Jordan. The visit to the Turkish capital included a full state dinner and a 90-minute private tete-a-tete between the two leaders.

In keeping with Prince Mohammed’s apparent disdain for journalists, there was no joint press conference.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly signed a $10bn (£8.1bn) currency swap deal with Turkey to bolster Ankara’s reserves, alongside announcing investments in the sectors of health, energy, food, defence, tourism and real estate, according to news reports.

For both countries, friendly ties mean more trade and influence as the United States continues a years-long path to exit from the Middle East.

“There are new openings,” said Guven Sak, an economist who heads Tepav, a think tank. “A new situation is emerging.”

Turkey’s president extended a warm welcome to Saudi leaders despite recent tensions

(AFP via Getty Images)

This new reality includes the Abraham Accords, a series of US-backed diplomatic agreements binding certain Arab countries to Israel without addressing Palestinian concerns.

It also includes a US reversal on Saudi Arabia. President Joe Biden’s administration initially vowed to keep its distance from Saudi Arabia over its human rights abuses and war in Yemen. But that has now changed course and Mr Biden is due to travel to Riyadh next month to pay tribute to King Salman and his heir.

It follows rapprochements between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, a loyal partner of Turkey, as well as an easing of tensions over Libya between Ankara and the United Arab Emirates, a partner of Riyadh.

Regional powers are seeing the emergence of a new economic and security order in the Middle East and other regional players, with lucrative new energy and transport connections designed to circumvent Russia and the war in Ukraine, and are jostling to be part of it, or at least not be excluded from it.

New business ideas are surfacing, Sak said.

“With the Israeli innovation capacity, with the Turkish manufacturing hub and with the Gulf capital, there is an opportunity to diversify their economies,” he said.

More immediately, the Turks talk about the potential for Saudi investment in the country’s struggling economy, which is suffering from record inflation and stagnant wages, as well as access to cheap energy in exchange for supplying Riyadh of security devices. Saudi Arabia sees a chance to boost the kingdom’s stature as a regional diplomatic force, with Mr Khashoggi’s case behind it.

A protester holds a poster with a picture of Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in 2018


“As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, we had good relations in the past and those good relations were overshadowed by the Khashoggi case,” Sak said. Already strained relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey crumbled after the October 2018 abduction, torture, murder and dismemberment of The Washington Post journalist Mr. Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at the hands of a 15-man team that included members of Prince Mohammed’s personal entourage.

As Turkey increased pressure on Riyadh over the murder, Saudi Arabia imposed a boycott of Turkish products, a restriction that was lifted after the Turkish judiciary suspended its investigation into Mr Khashoggi’s murder. Authorities reassigned the Istanbul judge who had opposed the decision to a remote province just days before the crown prince’s visit.

Some Turks find it hard to swallow the new relationship with Saudi Arabia. “God willing, [Prince Mohammed] will loosen his purse strings a bit and bless us with dollars and loans,” columnist Emin Colasan wrote in the Turkish newspaper Sozcu tuesday. “But if I was [Erdogan] I asked him: “You killed your own citizen in the building of your consulate in Istanbul. Well, have you ever been ashamed? What have you done with the killers?’

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