After Parting Ways: The Coming Frosty Entente in Saudi-Turkish Relations

This is likely to be Turkey’s year of normalization with regional counterparts, as 2021 was one of diplomatic restoration for Turkish foreign policy. While in the past few years Ankara’s relations with Arab states—particularly those in the Gulf—were marked by intense competition and strategic rivalry. Turkey’s overtures to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia in 2021 signaled a reset in the country’s foreign policy and a shift from confrontation to appeasement. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s expected visit to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in February 2022 reflects the Turkish leadership’s aspiration for reconciliation and increased cooperation with the two Gulf heavyweights, in a context of global and regional reconfigurations as well as mounting economic and political challenges on the Turkish domestic scene. Yet, the Turkish-Saudi normalization is unlikely to lead to a long-term strategic alliance as Ankara and Riyadh continue to vie for regional leadership; instead, their rapprochement is meant to be a context-specific marriage of convenience and a transactional partnership, allowing each party to pursue its interests in an evolving regional and global environment.

The Complicated Turkish-Saudi Relationship

Relations between Ankara and Riyadh have always fluctuated between cooperation and confrontation, partnership and competition. The ascent to power of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 allowed for a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. In contrast to the secular governments that had ruled Turkey since the founding of the republic in 1923, the AKP and its leader Erdoğan put a high priority on improving ties and building stronger relationships with the Arab and Muslim states. Seeking “strategic depth” in the region, Ankara engaged in a good neighborhood diplomacy, famously coined as “zero problems with the neighbors” policy. This approach paved the way for increased cooperation with Saudi Arabia throughout the 2000s. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ensuing change in the balance of power in the region brought Turkey and Saudi Arabia closer together, as both sought to contain Iran’s increasing military and political influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

As a result of these closer ties, in August 2006 the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz became the first Saudi leader to visit Turkey since 1966; a year later, on his second visit to Ankara, the Saudi monarch was awarded the Turkish President’s Medal of Honor for his role in building cooperation between the two countries. Improved diplomatic relations fostered growing business and investment, with Turkey exporting textiles, metals, and other products to Saudi Arabia and the kingdom reciprocating with mainly oil supplies.

The 2010-2011 Arab uprisings inaugurated an era of open disagreement and tension in Saudi-Turkish relations. Turkey perceived the Arab Spring as a historic opportunity to expand its influence through shaping a new regional order based on political Islam, one that would gravitate in Ankara’s orbit. Therefore, the Turkish leadership acted as the sponsor of Islamist movements in the region by providing political and material support for Muslim Brotherhood groups in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. It also promoted a Turkish/AKP model of political governance based on a special mix of democracy, secularism, and Islam with a sophisticated blend of tradition and modernity. The Saudi leadership, on the other hand, saw the revolutions as a threat to political stability in the Gulf and sought to preserve the regional status quo ante; Riyadh hence chose to lead the counterrevolution by stabilizing Gulf monarchies and containing the rise of political Islam.

However, divergences in the Turkish and Saudi approaches to the Arab revolutions did not initially lead to the deterioration of bilateral relations. Both openly opposed to the Bashar al-Assad regime, Ankara and Riyadh cooperated on Syria, where they funded various anti-Assad forces and coordinated their counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State. In Yemen, the AKP government initially extended its support to the 2015 Saudi intervention a few days after the start of the operation. Common challenges and security threats in a changing regional order even pushed the two countries to consider setting up a “high-level strategic cooperation council” to strengthen their military, political, and economic cooperation. “Split diplomacy” or “twin-track policy” could best characterize Turkish-Saudi interaction in the period 2010-2016; despite their divergent interests and competing views toward the Arab uprisings, Ankara and Riyadh managed to maintain cordial relations by compartmentalizing issues of disagreement.

Yet, the outbreak of the Gulf crisis in 2017 and the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul caused a major rift and ushered an era of open confrontation between Riyadh and Ankara. In fact, the kingdom and the UAE led a regional alliance to cut off Qatar economically, accusing it of terror offenses and ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. For its part, Turkey backed Qatar, deploying troops and supplies to a base in the country. Deepening relations between Turkey and Qatar have in turn contributed to increased threat perceptions in Saudi Arabia and the UAE regarding Turkish regional ambitions. In 2018, the Turkish trial in absentia of Saudi officials indicted over the Khashoggi murder further deteriorated bilateral relations.

During the period 2017-2021, the intense competition between Riyadh and Ankara took the form of a cold war that played out through a proxy confrontation on various fronts, particularly in Libya and Syria.

During the period 2017-2021, the intense competition between Riyadh and Ankara took the form of a cold war that played out through a proxy confrontation on various fronts, particularly in Libya and Syria. When the Libyan conflict escalated, Turkey and Qatar supported the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), with Ankara in January 2020 deploying soldiers, equipment, and mercenaries to assist the GNA. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt backed the Libyan National Army, with the UAE sending arms to aid renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. In Syria, both countries supported the opposition to the Assad regime but funded competing anti-Assad groups on the ground. Negative and confrontational discourse dominated bilateral relations, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman portrayed Turkey as a destructive force in the region and Erdoğan publicly accused the kingdom of Khashoggi’s murder.

The intensification of the cold war in 2016-2021 between the Turkey-Qatar and the Saudi Arabia-UAE-Egypt axes took place against the backdrop of a changing regional security context and major shifts in Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s threat perceptions. After the failed coup attempt of July 2016 in Turkey, the Turkish leadership showed increased concern about regime stability and national security. This translated into securitization of regional issues, a preference for unilateral action, and a militarization of foreign policy with increased use of hard power. Growing regional polarization also pushed Ankara to redefine its relations with partners and adversaries alike, with the Turkish leadership viewing Ankara’s interactions with other regional powers as a zero-sum competition. Domestic developments had spillover effects on foreign policy; the People’s Alliance between the ruling AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), in the wake of the coup attempt, contributed to a militaristic and aggressive turn in foreign policy as challenges emanating from the region were elevated to national security threats. The nationalist narrative of an isolated Turkey surrounded by enemies and untrastworthy regional rivals emerged as the main pillar of Turkey’s new foreign policy. Similarly, the escalation of the conflict in Yemen, growing Houthi attacks against the kingdom, and the international “naming and shaming” campaign against the Saudi leadership following Khashoggi’s murder created a security obsession in Riyadh, which translated into a more assertive, offensive, and competitive foreign policy.

From Open Conflict to Hopes of Cooperation

While Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been at loggerheads since 2016, changing global and regional realities, coupled with domestic exigencies, are creating the ground for a normalization of bilateral ties. The United States’ apparent hardened approach to Saudi Arabia and its cold relations with Turkey under the Biden Administration, together with a softened stance on Iran as reflected by the US return to the negotiating table to bring the 2015 nuclear deal back on track, have created in Riyadh and Ankara a perception of dilution of US security guarantees to allies, prompting them to repair their damaged relationship. Both US allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia must now adapt to American disengagement from the region by diversifying their network of partners, redefining their alignments, and building stronger cooperation to ensure their security against mounting threats (such as from Kurdish fighters, Houthi militias, or a more assertive Iran).

At the regional level, new power configurations and emerging insecurities force Ankara and Riyadh to reconsider their calculations. While the UAE, one of the Gulf’s most influential states, normalized relations with Israel, Riyadh and Ankara cannot turn to Israel without seriously harming their image in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Staying out of the Abraham Accords forces them to seek a stronger partnership to secure their interests in a highly volatile region. Furthermore, the changing dynamics of the Yemen war create the opportunity for a rapprochement. The end of the Saudi-Emirati alliance in Yemen reverted the two countries to their old pattern of competition; left with no genuine partner in the region, Saudi Arabia now is inclined to restore ties with Turkey.

The end of the Saudi-Emirati alliance in Yemen reverted the two countries to their old pattern of competition; left with no genuine partner in the region, Saudi Arabia now is inclined to restore ties with Turkey.

Similarly for Ankara, improving relations with Saudi Arabia offers a way to break out of the spiral of regional isolation. Because of its adamant support for the defeated Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its frequent resort to hard power in Syria and Libya, Turkey’s “zero problems with the neighbors” policy turned into a situation of “zero neighbors without problems.” Instead of gaining its desired strategic depth in the Middle East, Ankara found itself in a strategic abyss, especially in the context of an increased struggle for hydrocarbon resources among regional powers. Saudi Arabia’s 2021 joint military exercises with Greece—Turkey’s main rival in the eastern Mediterranean—acted as an alarm bell for Ankara, pushing it to review its calculations. The return to a more pragmatic foreign policy approach that focuses on rekindling ties with Saudi Arabia appears to be a necessary precondition for rehabilitating Turkey at the regional level and safeguarding its energy interests.

Lastly, for Ankara, the aspiration for normalization with Gulf states is driven by domestic considerations. Turkey is struggling with a severe financial and external debt crisis and is desperately in need of foreign capital. As the country prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023, improving the national economic outlook appears a must for the ruling AKP. In fact, it is highly likely that the economy will decide the country’s political future this time, as it did after the 2001 economic crisis that helped bring Erdoğan and his party to power. Therefore, by reaching out to Gulf states, the Turkish leadership seeks to attract their capital in an attempt to boost economic growth domestically and secure a victory in the upcoming elections. It is worth mentioning that these elections, more than any others, have a symbolic significance for Erdoğan: 2023 marks the centennial of the Turkish Republic, and, just like Mustafa Kemal founded the Turkish state in 1923 and entered the political imaginary as the “father of the Turks” (his popular nickname “Atatürk” literally means that), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan aspires to enter history as the new “father of the Turks”—or the father of a “new Turkey,” one that he has molded and shaped.

A Marriage of Convenience

It is against this backdrop that, in 2021, Turkey undertook a reset of its foreign policy toward regional heavyweights, namely Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Following the January 2021 al-Ula Summit in Saudi Arabia and the end of the blockade on Qatar, the Turkey-Qatar alliance lost its raison d’être against the Saudi-UAE-Egypt axis. Having realized the futility of continuing its support for the Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of its diplomatic relations with Egypt, Ankara made overtures to Cairo which resulted in two sessions of exploratory talks to restore relations. On the Turkey-UAE track, following an unprecedented visit last November by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and UAE de facto rule Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE announced a $10 billion fund for investments in Turkey. On the Ankara-Riyadh front, after a phone call between Erdoğan and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, the sparring partners agreed to keep “channels of dialogue open,” signaling a possible improvement of relations.

By repairing ties, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are engaging in a marriage of convenience that is expected to yield significant benefits for them. As Gulf states look to expand their defense arsenals amid incessant attacks by Iran-linked groups in the region, Turkey’s game-changing military technology is appealing. In particular, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are eyeing Turkish drones, which proved highly effective in wars in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh during the last confrontation between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Turkey also hopes that normalization with Riyadh would lead to lifting of the informal Saudi boycott of Turkish goods as well as of products labeled “made in Turkey” and imported from foreign companies. Turkish exports to the kingdom decreased to $189 million in the first 11 months of 2021, from $2.5 billion in 2020 and $3.2 billion in 2019, causing the ire of Turkish business associations that appealed to Erdoğan to find a solution for the conflict with Riyadh.

In addition to economic and military considerations, geostrategic calculations provide a rationale for the rapprochement.

In addition to economic and military considerations, geostrategic calculations provide a rationale for the rapprochement. A Turkish-Saudi-Emirati coordination has the potential to break the status quo in Syria and change the balance of power on the ground in favor of anti-Assad forces. At the regional level, Ankara, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi hope that their partnership would contain and counterbalance the expanding influence of Iran.

In short, the three powers conceive the normalization of their relations as a transactional partnership that allows them to achieve separate short-term economic and political objectives without committing to any genuine long-term alliance.

An End to Rivalry, or Just Another Truce?

While fence-mending between Ankara and Riyadh signals a truce in their complicated relationship, there is hardly any chance that such rapprochement would lead to genuine and lasting partnership. First, serious differences in interest and approach persist, particularly vis-à-vis Iran. While Saudi Arabia views Tehran as an archenemy, Ankara sees it only as an enemy or rival with which it is friendly. In fact, Turkey sustains subtle relations with Iran: despite supporting opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, Ankara and Tehran have avoided direct confrontation and managed to find a modus vivendi, allowing them to pursue their interests while respecting and accommodating each other’s red lines. And despite their rivalry for regional leadership, Turkey and Iran are economically interdependent: Turkey purchases Iranian oil and has helped the regime circumvent US-imposed sanctions. Against this backdrop, while Saudi Arabia expects Turkey to actively contain Iran, Ankara is more likely to engage in soft balancing toward Tehran.

Despite their rivalry for regional leadership, Turkey and Iran are economically interdependent: Turkey purchases Iranian oil and has helped the regime circumvent US-imposed sanctions.

Second, both parties seem to have exaggerated expectations regarding each other’s readiness to offer concessions. Saudi Arabia and the UAE expect Turkey to curb what they see as its interventionist foreign policy in return for greater economic cooperation. But Ankara is unlikely to deliver on this demand given the Turkish leadership’s growing assertiveness and quest for power and status at the regional and global levels. Turkey’s expectations might not materialize either, particularly when it comes to the hope of eroding Saudi Arabia’s collaboration with Greece and Cyprus in gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.

Third, Turkish-Saudi relations are marked by mutual distrust and historical prejudices. The Saudis look at Turkey’s regional ambitions with fear and suspicion as they are haunted by the memory of the destruction of the First Saudi State in 1818 by the Ottoman Empire. In the Turks’ collective imaginary, on the other hand, the loss of Mecca to the Saudi kingdom continues to be a significant blow to the Islamic prestige of the Ottoman Empire and its heir, Turkey. The past is not yet past, and it overshadows current bilateral relations.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia: Friend-Enemies Forever

Following its reconciliation with the UAE and Egypt, conditions are ripe this year for Turkey’s normalization with Saudi Arabia. However, despite changing global, regional, and domestic realities that pull Ankara and Riyadh toward each other, the root causes of contention remain in place and prevent any genuine partnership, let alone alliance, between them. What’s more, the lack of personal affinity between the Turkish president and the Saudi crown prince is a major, yet overlooked, disruptive factor. The two men may meet face-to-face during Erdoğan’s visit, but that likely will be for public relations.

While Ankara and Riyadh are engaging in a pragmatic, realpolitik-driven rapprochement, overall relations will probably remain poor and marked by strategic competitiveness and a zero-sum mentality. As uncertainties rise and polarization accelerates in the Middle East, the two Sunni poles of the region are doomed to remain friends and enemies at the same time, fluctuating between war and peace, open confrontation, and transactional, interest-based partnership.

The views expressed in this paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Arab Center Washington DC or its Board of Directors.