Regional Isolation, Economic Crises Prompt Ankara to Change Foreign Policy

Would Turkey’s Rapprochement with Saudi Arabia Help Resolve Disputed Issues?
File photo of a previous meeting between Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on January 3 that he will travel to Saudi Arabia next month.

“I received an invitation from Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz to visit Riyadh, and we will discuss many issues related to bilateral ties,” he told senior Turkish exporters during a trade event in Istanbul.

Erdogan added that he will discuss with King Salman bilateral trade relations and the means of removing any obstacles hindering them.

His remark came in response to a question by a Turkish businesswoman about the undeclared Saudi ban on Turkish goods and her demand to resolve this issue.

The Turkish administration later stated that the date of the visit is not confirmed yet, but it did not deny Erdogan’s revelation.

Russia’s Sputnik news agency quoted the Turkish administration as acknowledging that Erdogan’s visit to Saudi Arabia was not confirmed yet.

Internal and External Challenges

Ankara’s unclear stance on the date of the Turkish president’s expected visit to Riyadh is very suggestive regarding developments in the course of Turkish-Saudi relations, in particular, and Turkish-Gulf relations, in general. 

This is also true of the Turkish administration’s announcement of Erdogan’s upcoming visit to the United Arab Emirates. Despite the news published by some websites quoting the Turkish foreign minister as saying that the president will visit the UAE in mid-February (Feb. 14 or 15), yet the administration once again did not provide any confirmation.

“The date of Erdogan’s visit to the UAE and Saudi Arabia is not confirmed yet, and all we have are his statements about intending to visit both countries,” Ankara told Sputnik.

Turkey faces various internal, regional and international challenges that prevent it from smoothly taking a firm stance and determining its orientation precisely and clearly, especially in regards to the complex issues which are topped by its ties with the Kingdom.

Emirati-Turkish economic rapprochement

Ankara has recently shown willingness to restore relations with Riyadh and has taken concrete steps to express its goodwill. Below are some indicators:

1-        Erdogan’s statement about rapprochement with the Kingdom was not the first. In an interview in December with TRT World, a Turkish public international news channel, he said that Ankara is keen to promote ties with Riyadh. “We are determined to improve Turkey’s relations with all Gulf countries... and there are very serious possibilities for cooperation between us. Our economies are integrated, and I hope to see new cooperative projects based on mutual benefit, such as joint investment opportunities.”

His remarks are in line with previous statements by Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, in which he expressed Ankara’s willingness to enhance relations with Riyadh.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tanju Bilgic also told a press conference in late June that Turkey attaches great importance to the security and stability of the Gulf region, adding that Ankara is keen to develop cooperation with the Gulf States and the region. He affirmed that there is no political disagreement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

2-        Turkey’s compliance with many Arab demands regarding the extremist and terrorist organizations it supports and uses as leverage against some Arab countries.

Perhaps its decision to halt its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and violent extremist organizations that raise tensions in multiple regions and threaten the stability and security of many Arab countries reflects its actual willingness to settle its differences with major Arab countries in the region, specifically Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

3-        Turkey’s hosting of high-level talks in November 2021. Turkish Vice President Fuad Oktay met with Saudi Trade Minister Majid Bin Abdullah Al Qabasi in Istanbul and discussed bilateral ties, especially in the field of commerce. The talks aimed at boosting bilateral trade, which suffered a significant decline during the past three years due to the dispute between the two countries.

According to official statistics, this dispute has led to a high inflation rate and the plunge of the Turkish lira to an all-time low.

4-        Turkey’s respect for Saudi court’s decision in Saudi citizen Jamal Khashoggi’s case, which sparked tension between the two countries.

“They had a court. Trials have been held,” Kalin said. “They made a decision, so we respect that decision.”

Ankara considers it unreasonable to define Turkish-Saudi relations and interests based on this case, which represents a major shift in Turkish policy towards the Kingdom. Turkey has repeatedly interfered in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs under the pretext of following the developments of this case, a policy which has proven to be a failure.

5-        Turkey’s recent shift in its policy towards the Arab Gulf and Egypt.

It has recently enhanced relations at all levels with the two Gulf States, the UAE and Bahrain, which supported Saudi Arabia’s rejection of the Turkish interventions.

The UAE-Turkish rapprochement has prompted the Kingdom to respond to Ankara’s attempts to restore ties.

Saudi Arabia is aware of the importance of its position and role in promoting GCC objectives. It has been keen to bridge the rift among GCC States and support their path to preserve their unity, in light of all the various challenges and crises.

The Kingdom decided to restore ties with Turkey since it maintained good relations with Qatar, Kuwait and Oman and has enhanced cooperative ties with the UAE and Bahrain.

Therefore, it is possible to notice the beginnings of a shift in the Saudi stance towards Turkey, in support of the enhanced ties between Turkey and the GCC, on one hand, and Egypt, on the other hand.

"International pressure hasn’t deterred Turkey from intervening militarily in northern Syria. "
International pressure hasn’t deterred Turkey from intervening militarily in northern Syria.

Issues that Should be Addressed

In light of Ankara’s recent strategy, and the Kingdom’s policy to interact positively with any steps taken by parties with whom it has differences, Erdogan’s upcoming visit to Riyadh could open major doors for the benefit of the two countries and their peoples. However, Turkey must be aware of the importance of changing its approach and committing to implement whatever is agreed upon, especially as there are several issues that should be addressed and settled. Among these are the two following issues:

1-        Turkey’s interests and Saudi Arabia’s boycott of Turkish products.

The Turkish economy was negatively affected by the Kingdom’s decision and has been facing major challenges. According to the data released by the Saudi General Authority for Statistics (GAStat) in late August, Saudi purchases of Turkish goods are still at their lowest historical levels despite recent efforts to mend the strained ties.

2-        The interests of Saudi Arabia and its regional partners. This issue is related to the security and stability which the Kingdom supports to protect the region from internal conflicts and foreign interventions.

This topic applies in the ongoing Turkish interference in the Libyan crisis, which disrupted the process of restoring stability and security there.

It is also the case in Iraq, where progress has been stalled due to the Turkish and Iranian interventions. Both countries have been keen to create conflicts that hinder any prospective agreement to establish peace and security in the country.

Turkey should commit not to support the extremist and terrorist organizations which it deploys to implement its agenda in the region.

To conclude, Turkey has been witnessing several transformations and shifts in its foreign policy for the past two years. It aims at returning to the principle of zero crises and problems with its neighboring countries that have left Ankara largely isolated in the Arab world.

In the recent past, Ankara disregarded the divisions caused by its policies, especially in the Middle East region. It reversed them from “zero problems with neighboring countries” to direct interventions in their affairs, military deployment in Syria and Libya, expanding its existing military presence in northern Iraq, and antagonizing the major regional powers.

However, the severe crises, especially at the economic level, and the international political developments, topped by the new US administration’s adoption of hardline positions towards Erdogan’s regime, have pushed Ankara to mend ties with regional countries.

“We have no hidden or declared biases. Nor do we have enmities against any party. We sincerely call on all parties to work together to enter a new phase and achieve stability, security, justice and respect,” the President said.

However, despite all these shifts in Turkey’s policies, most of which remain verbal, it is important to be very cautious about dealing with these statements, through which Turkey is trying to reassure countries of the region.

It should start taking confidence-building measures through serious steps to resolve many disputed issues.


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