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Regional challenges encourage Saudi-Turkish cooperation

During a trade event in Istanbul on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he will pay a visit to Saudi Arabia next month after receiving an invitation from Riyadh. The visit will be the first by the Turkish president to the Kingdom since February 2017, when he visited Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar as part of a tour to discuss the intra-Gulf crisis.

In recent months, Ankara and Riyadh have been working to mend ties after years of tension in their relationship. Mutual visits by Turkish and Saudi officials have already taken place in order to prepare the ground for the high-level meeting. Last May, Ankara sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia for talks, during which Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan. Cavusoglu called Prince Faisal his “brother” and said the talks “addressed some problematic areas in the relationship.”

This was followed by a meeting between Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay and Saudi Trade Minister Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi on the sidelines of a conference held in Istanbul in late November. This meeting, which was part of a series of high-level bilateral engagements that have taken place since October 2020, was read as a sign that Ankara and Riyadh aim to rehabilitate their trade relations and move forward both politically and economically. It also came amid the visit of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan to Ankara, during which the UAE announced billions of dollars of investments in Turkey. As a reciprocal visit, Erdogan is scheduled to be in the UAE in mid-February.

Although economic cooperation is a very significant dimension of the Turkish-Saudi relationship, their cooperation regarding regional security issues is equally important. In my book, “Turkish-Saudi Relations: Cooperation and Competition in the Middle East,” I described Ankara-Riyadh relations using the metaphor of a roller coaster, as the relationship has experienced numerous ups and downs due to developments in the region.

The regional and international developments of the past decade have played a crucial role in the course of Turkish-Saudi relations. In particular, the emergence of new challenges due to the onset of the Arab uprisings led to a deterioration in the relationship.

Despite their different political motivations, there is still room for potential Turkish-Saudi cooperation in the economic sphere and in areas related to regional security. In this highly volatile region, in order to minimize the threats to their interests, there are some dossiers that necessitate close cooperation between Ankara and Riyadh.

The first of these is Syria, where the two countries are on the same page. Although they differ regarding any post-Assad era, potential coordination between Turkey and Saudi Arabia — like prior to the Russian intervention in 2015 — is crucial to changing the balances in Syria and forcing a sustainable solution. For Syria, the deterioration of Turkey’s relations with the Gulf countries had an adverse impact not only in terms of weakening the opposition ranks, but also in strengthening the hands of Russia and Iran.

Several other domestic developments, such as the failed coup attempt in Turkey, and regional developments, such as the Yemen war and Gulf crisis, took attention away from the Syria file, diminishing the one structural variable keeping Ankara and Riyadh from acting together.

Besides Syria, the increasing Iranian role in the region and the situations in Libya, Iraq and Lebanon push Turkey and Saudi Arabia to open new channels for cooperation on achieving regional stability and security. Regarding Iran, both Ankara and Riyadh perceive its influence in regional issues as problematic, although both sides have their own reasons for considering Tehran’s power to be a threat. 
 
Palestine is a significant area that still requires Turkish-Saudi cooperation. Last year saw the internationally fueled civil wars in three Middle Eastern countries – namely Syria, Libya and Yemen — seemingly frozen. However, a regional challenge appeared on the Palestinian front. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinian resistance group Hamas escalated drastically in early May, leading to concerns that it could pose a threat to regional stability. Finding ways to approach Palestinian and Israeli officials could be one area in which Turkey and Saudi Arabia can combine their powers.

Lastly, besides the regional dimension, there is the international aspect. US President Joe Biden’s ascent to power, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and its low profile in Middle Eastern issues have led the region’s countries to embrace reconciliation rather than rivalry. Hence, the Biden administration is also encouraging closer Turkish-Saudi cooperation in the region. Turkey has the second-largest army in NATO and Ankara was instrumental in launching a NATO initiative known as the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, which aims to build partnerships between the alliance and Gulf countries, while Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter. 

The recent climate of reconciliation and the systemic factors provide a unique opportunity for regional countries to recalibrate their approaches to one another, shifting back from hard power to soft power. Ankara and Riyadh should shape their foreign policies according to their own best interests, while also considering several potential areas of cooperation. In the end, any improvement in relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia is likely to strengthen their posture on diplomatic platforms, while also bolstering their positions when it comes to coping with common threats.
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• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey's relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz

Arab News
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