Turkish Reasons for a Rapprochement with Saudi Arabia

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not hide his main demand when he buried the case of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was killed on October 2, 2018 by Saudi agents in his country’s consulate in Istanbul. A logical outcome of Erdoğan’s decision was burying the hatchet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the main suspect of ordering Khashoggi’s elimination. “We agreed with Saudi Arabia to reactivate a great economic potential through organisations that will bring our investors together,” Erdoğan declared recently during his first trip to Riyadh since 2017, adding, “my visit will herald a new era in the ties between our two countries.”

Erdoğan’s embarrassing step back from his earlier support for justice for Khashoggi was a clear indication that Turkey, not Saudi Arabia, is the most interested party in the new engagement. The Turkish economy’s sustained plight has become an opportunity for the rich Gulf elite. With handing over Khashoggi’s murder trial to Saudi Arabia, Erdoğan aimed to straighten out his personal relations with MbS and give assurances that the Turkish President would not continue to delegitimize the Saudi prince’s persona on the international stage.

Erdoğan reiterated the need “to start a new era in foreign policy”—a call that has become a staple of his speeches in the past year. Turkey’s turn to diplomacy deserves most attention indeed, given the fact that the Turkish president and his political alliance with Turkish nationalist firebrands have created a militarist vision since the 2016 coup attempt. Erdoğan’s recent threats of military operations in Syria is in apparent conflict with his obvious change of heart toward the Gulf countries as well as his discourse on Middle East diplomacy for the post-American order. So are current Turkish military operations in Iraq. Such contradictions indicate that Turkey does not seek a radical transformation in its foreign policy orientation. Rather, Erdoğan aims to recalibrate his strategy before the critical 2023 elections at home, exploiting emerging opportunities with a balance of diplomacy and militarism.

Erdoğan aims to recalibrate his strategy before the critical 2023 elections at home, exploiting emerging opportunities with a balance of diplomacy and militarism.

Overall, two key factors are behind Turkey’s calculus in resetting relations with Saudi Arabia. First, the crumbling Turkish economy may not be sustainable without the government’s intervention, hence Gulf investments will serve as a life vest for Erdoğan’s declining popularity. Second, Ankara was hit hard by Riyadh’s role in strengthening the anti-Turkey alliance in the eastern Mediterranean. Erdoğan’s government as well as the Turkish nationalist state apparatus want to break the country’s growing isolation in the region which, according to Turkey’s military elite, benefits Greece and Cyprus. In this regard, rapprochement with Saudi Arabia becomes a part of the greater strategic reengagement with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.

Turkey’s Economic Woes

With a surge to nearly 70 percent, the inflation rate in Turkey is at its highest level since Erdoğan’s ruling party, Justice and Development (AKP), came to power in 2002. In 2021, the Turkish lira lost its value against the US dollar by 44 percent, and the staggering downturn trend has proven to be unstoppable. Using state banks to buy up liras, the Turkish government is trying to halt the decline in the national currency. Turkey’s economy was already in a recession before the COVID-19 pandemic. The longevity of the pandemic and the deepening debt crisis have resulted in very high prices and bills that increased broad discontent against Erdoğan’s regime. Youth unemployment is also at its peak at 25 percent.

Given that the presidential and parliamentary elections are fast approaching— currently scheduled in June 2023—it is hard to overstate fears inside Erdoğan’s government. The toll of the economic downturn already began to hit hard before the pandemic. During the 2019 municipal elections, Erdoğan equated losing Istanbul with an eventual loss of his power grip in the country. His fears, however, did not change the outcome: The ruling party’s embarrassing setback in that city galvanized the opposition, and since then Erdoğan’s approval witnessed historic lows. The financial crisis has also raised serious doubts about unconventional theories in managing the Turkish economy—such as keeping interest rates low in the fight against rising inflation. Moreover, mass scapegoating of immigrants for the economic troubles does not help the Erdoğan regime, which is often criticized for misguided refugee policies.

The financial crisis has raised serious doubts about unconventional theories in managing the Turkish economy—such as keeping interest rates low in the fight against rising inflation.

Erdoğan’s recent turn to the Gulf elite for financial investments is thus quite understandable. Since the Khashoggi crisis, Saudi Arabia’s boycott of Turkish goods has cost three billion dollars annually. By bringing in Saudi investment and adding Riyadh to the currency market, the Turkish government seeks to reap benefits from its new Gulf opening. Erdoğan hopes to get a deal from Saudi Arabia that is comparable to that with the UAE a few months ago; Abu Dhabi signed a $4.9 billion currency swap and has plans for a $10 billion fund for investments in Turkey.

Erdoğan’s pragmatic shift due to the collapsing economy at home is welcomed by Turkey’s regional competitors, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel. It is reasonable to expect that Riyadh will offer short-term, immediate financial relief packages to help Erdoğan instead of long-term investments. However, to meet his full expectations from Riyadh, Erdogan will need to emerge victorious from the 2023 elections. Therefore, it is too early to call the current warmth in bilateral relations between Ankara and Riyadh as a new era. Besides, the Saudis announced that Mohammed bin Salman’s reciprocal visit to Erdoğan will include a trip to Greece, Greek Cyprus, Jordan, and Egypt, an inclusion that indicates that Saudi Arabia may prefer to move cautiously and slowly in its relations with Turkey.

Dynamics of the Eastern Mediterranean Power Game

Analyzing Turkey’s foreign policy through domestic politics may present risks. It is thus important to investigate the structural forces behind the Turkish-Saudi rapprochement. The common perception of the coming post-American order in the Middle East calls all countries to recalibrate their strategies in the region. Turkey perceives Saudi Arabia as a regional hegemon, hence a competitor in power politics. Even if the Erdoğan regime ends abruptly, it is unlikely to see a Turkish retreat from the Middle Eastern power game. Before the rise of Erdoğan’s AKP, the Turkish state elite were oblivious about engaging with the Middle East, a rejectionism in state ideology since the time of Kemal Ataturk. After the AKP’s 20-year rule, however, Turkey’s secular nationalists experienced a metamorphosis and the old Turkish militarism revived through new markets for securitization policies, the arms industry, and an expansionist agenda from Libya to Iraq to Azerbaijan. Although Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman discourse was a drift away from the Turkish state’s ideology, the new militarism has provided opportunities for the old state elite to seek financial incentives and try to regain their influence in shaping the Turkish foreign policy agenda.

One of the main points of friction between the Turkish state ideology and Erdoğan’s new presidential regime, however, has been the use of political Islam in regional politics. Erdoğan has long portrayed his image as anti-status quo and himself as a revisionist leader. Riyadh, together with Abu Dhabi and Cairo, found Erdoğan’s agenda especially dangerous to their national interests. But with a new rapprochement with Israel and Gulf states, Erdoğan appears to be stepping back from his revisionist policies and priorities to satisfy his nationalist alliance at home. Erdoğan’s secular nationalist partners have long demanded a retreat from Turkey’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. On his return to Turkey from Riyadh, Erdoğan shut down the Brotherhood’s Mekameleen television station and put restrictions on the group’s public relations, noting that “diplomatic circumstances have changed.” This was clearly a direct message to Saudi Arabia and pro-status quo Gulf regimes to quell their concerns about Ankara’s ambitions. Moreover, the Turkish government has begun to expel Hamas activists, communicating with the group that members of the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, its military wing, could not remain in Turkey. These developments indicate that, while Riyadh may still be disturbed by the neo-Ottoman discourse that allows Turkish military operations in Iraq and Syria, Erdoğan’s withdrawal of support for the Muslim Brotherhood in regional politics will make Ankara-Riyadh relations better.

There are also clear signals that Ankara aims to use the current reconciliation with Riyadh to eventually reach out to Cairo. Turkish and Egyptian delegations have started to engage in dialogues in the past year. A potential visit between Erdoğan and Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi may not be possible before the critical 2023 elections, given that the Turkish president does not want to give an image of weakness in the eyes of his own political Islamist AKP constituency. The 2013 Egyptian coup against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was utilized by Erdoğan to buttress his revolutionary image with the claim that he is a target of Western conspiracy and coup attempts.

Turkey’s disputes with Greece and Cyprus are often perceived as national security matters, prompting Erdoğan to satisfy his nationalist alliance by breaking Turkey’s isolation through relations with other actors.

In the long run, however, a strategic rapprochement between the Turkish and Egyptian militaries is desirable for Ankara due to the shifting dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean. With unprecedented moves, Greece and Cyprus have developed significant relations—including joint military drills and collaborative platforms to explore natural gas—with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Turkey perceives these developments as highly alarming and thus aims to break such alliance formation against Turkish interests in the region. For the official state ideology, Turkey’s disputes with Greece and Cyprus are often perceived as national security matters, prompting Erdoğan to satisfy his nationalist alliance by breaking Turkey’s isolation through relations with other actors.

Can Turkey Deliver on the Iranian Threat?

In a post-American order in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Turkey may find opportunities for cooperation in Syria and Iraq. Despite being competitors, Ankara and Riyadh find common ground in perceiving Iran’s regional ambitions as detrimental to their national interests. Erdoğan’s recent statements included sympathy for Riyadh’s security concerns about the Islamic Republic. There are both financial and geopolitical reasons behind Turkey’s desire to sell its famous Bayraktar drones to Saudi Arabia.

In the short term, however, Turkish-Saudi relations in Syria and Iraq will be shaped by American policies. The US Treasury Department has recently lifted some sanctions to exempt investors and private companies with relations in northeastern and western Syria from the Caesar Act. This is a critical development as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned since the United States seeks to help the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in those areas but to continue sanctioning the Syrian regime’s territories. Saudi Arabia and the UAE seek to engage with the Assad regime in order to lessen Iran’s leverage in Damascus, but they will be limited by the Caesar Act. At the same time, if the Saudis get involved with the SDF, they will be inviting trouble with Turkey which is fighting the SDF and considers a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria a national security threat. As it was previously, Saudi assistance to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) irked Ankara and caused repeated media criticism of the kingdom. Thus, a Saudi-Turkish rapprochement will necessarily entail a Saudi change on YPG and their ally, the Kurdistan Workers Party, and its operations in Iraq and Iran, even if they target Iranian regime troops.

In Iraq, however, Turkish-Saudi cooperation is also dependent on finding a delicate balance of competing demands. Baghdad is highly disturbed by Turkey’s expanding military influence in the Sinjar region, thus limiting its ability to help strengthen Sunni interests in the country, a key Saudi desire. Neither is the expansion of Turkish military zones in Iraqi Kurdistan good news for Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Iran is also trying to increase its presence in Iraqi Kurdistan at the same time that Israel is seeking to strengthen its foothold there, a situation that invites tense relations between Ankara and Tehran. To be sure, overlapping interests of many parties in northern Iraq do not necessarily guarantee an emerging Turkish-Saudi pact in the near future.

Still, Turkey and Saudi Arabia seem to be steadfastly moving, although deliberately on the latter’s part, toward a rapprochement after years of tension. This is likely to help President

Erdoğan address some irksome political and economic facts in the country. It is also likely to give the Saudis hope that they may not be on their own amidst widespread speculation in the region that the United States is planning an exit from the Middle East.