Since the latest days of the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia has been giving green lights to all the rivals in foreign policy. Before Biden took the presidency, Saudi Arabia more specifically the crown prince Mohammad bin Salman launched a campaign to furbish its international image which was shattered after the killing of Khashoggi. In the early days of the year 2021, the artificial crisis or blockade on Qatar was terminated. Hosting the GCC summit in the city of al-Ula, Saudi Arabia announced that the Gulf crisis has ended. As US politics disturbs the Saudi regime due to the heavy emphasis on human rights in the presidency of Biden, the Riyadh administration chose to close the chapters of the crisis. After the Gulf crisis, the next chapter was the war in Yemen. In this sense, realizing the failure in the Yemen war that has been going on since 2015 and has been intensifying since 2020, Saudi Arabia extended an olive branch to the Houthis who are the informal ally of Iran. Therefore, Saudi Arabia tried to close another episode from its crisis file. But the Houthis haven’t accepted Saudi Arabian “peace” initiative yet.
Related to this, it is reported in the Western media that Saudi Arabia and Iran held talks in Baghdad to normalize the relationship which were tempered in 2016. Moreover, speaking to the Rotana TV channel, the crown prince bin Salman has sent positive messages to Iran. Thereby, the Saudi side accepted that there is a new understanding in Riyadh that mainly aims to reform its foreign policy even towards Iran. This is mainly due to the change in the US policy towards the region. But Turkey has not been taken into consideration in terms of the foreign policy transformation of Saudi Arabia, even though there have been several positive signals since the end of 2020. King Salman has sent humanitarian aid to Turkey due to the earthquake in Izmir. He ordered the aid and addressed the victims as “our brothers”. That instruction is portrayed in the mainstream media channels in the kingdom. Many observers and analysts have commented on this move as a positive sign. Moreover, al-Sharq al-Awsat which is one of the apparatuses of the Saudi regime has stated that the kingdom has been backing the position of Turkey in Libya. Even though it is alleged that by bandwagoning the United Arab Emirates (the UAE), Saudi Arabia has been funding the general Hifter[viii], the Riyadh administration has stated that Turkey’s position in Libya is contributing to the political solution and stability. Not long before, the foreign minister of the kingdom has expressed that Saudi Arabia had perfect relations with Turkey. Many experts of international relations have interpreted these developments as the normalization of bilateral relations will take place soon. Moreover, the ending of the blockade on Qatar, the announcement of a ceasefire in Yemen, and signals about re-establishing relations with Iran are also understood that Saudi Arabia would normalize its relations with Turkey. But despite all these moods of optimism and all positive moves from Turkey, Saudi Arabia has expressed that 8 Turkish schools in the kingdom will be closed. Why did the kingdom take this decision? Will the bilateral relations be normalized? What is the historical background of the tension? There is an emerging geopolitical atmosphere that could bring the two countries close and together. This new order mainly appeared due to Biden’s presidency and it is seen that there is Joe Biden’s effect on Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy.
Mostly, all actors in the region and mainly the ally of the US are not satisfied with Biden’s policy towards the region. Moreover, the pandemic damaged the economy of the countries. For coping with the challenges from security and economic fields, the countries need to cooperate with each other. Moreover, Turkey has been eager to amend the “precious loneliness” which was introduced by Ibrahim Kalin, the presidential spokesperson. In this sense, exploratory talks have started with all rivals of Turkey such as Greece, Egypt. Therefore, Turkey has been trying to break the ice in the relations by taking diplomatic steps such as expressing respect for the judgement of Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in Saudi Arabia.[xii] Erdogan called King Salman and it is also reported that the foreign minister of Turkey, Mevlut Cavusoglu will take an official visit to Saudi Arabia in next days. Therefore, it seems that there is an available conjuncture for normalizing the relations. But, it must be noted that there are several realities in the geopolitical fields. Therefore, being optimistic doesn’t reflect reality. It is still obvious that several factors are causing the deterioration of the relations. If these factors change or their influence diminishes, Saudi Arabia’s Turkey policy will soften and relations can be normalized.
Saudis’ concerns on democracy
When the AKP took the government, the foreign policy of Turkey towards the Middle East or more specifically to the Gulf changed. Hereafter, Turkey decided to develop its relations with the partners in the Gulf. The relations are upgraded and the levels are raised. Till the last days of 2010, there were no concrete and serious problems in Turkey-Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) relations. But the Arab revolutions negatively affected the relations due to both sides taking different positions vis a vis what is called “Arab spring”. Put differently, after the Arab spring Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations started to deteriorate.[xiv] But the revolutions in the streets of the Arab cities did not cause deep tension between Turkey and the Gulf countries. The stance of the US on the revolution shocked the Gulf monarchies, then they took actions by themselves and backed the coup in Egypt against only one democratically elected president of Egypt Mohammad Morsi who was an ally of Turkey. Turkey never accepted this anti-democratic stance. Since then, the relations have soured. Gulf countries to be more precise, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have seen Turkey as a threat due to its stance on democracy. The fear of the UAE and its war against political Islam[xv] awakened the concerns of Saudi Arabia on democracy. In this sense, Saudi Arabia perceived that Turkey is a potential threat in terms of democratic mobilization. It is widely known that Turkey has been supporting all democratic movements. Therefore, if Saudi Arabia does not abandon the policy of fearing democracy, Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations would not be normalized.
It can be argued that the US presidents and their policies have tensed the relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Firstly, the US repositioned towards the region that caused regional competition. The lack of stabilization of the region and the reduction of the US’ intensification of regional activation leads to a political vacuum. Many regional actors have launched more assertive and competitive foreign policy campaigns such as Saudi Arabia that induced and provoked the regional confrontation. Therefore, the US policy toward the region has caused tension in the Saudi Arabia-Turkey relations. Secondly, the US stance on the process of the Arab revolution has also negatively affected the relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Obama’s political uncertainty has led the US not to support democracy promotion in the region.[xvii] It was obvious when the military coup was held against Morsi. Since that time, the anti-status quo-oriented actors such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have actively attacked the pro-democratic movements and actors. The Muslim Brotherhood and the AKP governments were the main victims of these assaults. Therefore, due to the US’ stance not being against the attack against the democratization process in the region, Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations deteriorated. Thirdly, the US policy towards Syria also damaged Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations. Obama failed to keep his promise in Syria and under his administration, the US administration decided to support terrorist organization PYD which is a Syrian branch of PKK. Saudi Arabia followed the US and also the UAE in this policy. The Riyadh administration did not understand Turkey’s national security concerns in neither Syria, Iraq nor Libya. Several times, Saudi Arabia condemned Turkey’s existence and fight against terror in the region. Saudi Arabia did not only condemn Turkey’s military operations against terrorist organization PYD/PKK but it is also reported that Saudi Arabia has secretly met the leaders of the terrorist organization and offered them financial aid. This also negatively affected the relations.
On the other hand, there is an individual level that is also affecting the relations. In this context, the 45.president of the US and his son-in-law Jared Kushner were responsible for deteriorating Saudi Arabia- Turkey relations. Trump and Kushner vest Saudi Arabia, more precisely the crown prince bin Salman with authority. He was provided giant support from the administration. Even though he ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Trump and Kushner somehow saved him. Due to close cooperation with Israel and the power of lobbies in the US, the crown prince continued its anti-Turkey or anti-Erdogan policy with his individual connections. Moreover, it must be noted that the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammad bin Zayid is the tutor of Mohammad bin Salman. He has been well known in the West, not like Mohammad bin Salman. He is powerful and has strategic moves. With Mohammad bin Zayed’s instructions, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia took his way to the kingdom. Since Salman became king, the king’s favorite son Mohammad bin Salman ascended to power. In 2015, he was promoted to the ministry of defense. Since that time, he has been eliminating his potential rivals.[xxi] In addition to that, he has zero-tolerance for any kind of criticism. His fear about losing the throne caused him to order the killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi.
Moreover, there is a political mentality behind Saudi Arabia’s anti-Turkey stance. Many experts have been arguing that Mohammad bin Zayed is the designer of the new geopolitical order in the Middle East. He is making that policy possible by having close cooperation with the US, deepening ties with China and Russia, and normalizing relations with Israel. To realize this policy, Mohammad bin Zayid needs to eliminate any potential obstacle. Turkey has been viewed as an existential threat to this policy. Therefore, bin Zayid formed a bloc or axis[xxii] consisting of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other small countries which are mainly opposing Turkey. Therefore, this bloc politics also leaves a bad effect on Saudi Arabia- Turkey relations. Some factors harshly affected the worsening of the relations. Media comes first. It has been known that there is no freedom of expression, almost every media channel in Saudi Arabia is bound by the orders from the regime. Therefore, the media in Saudi Arabia has been used to the advantage of the regime, to put a finer point on it, to the advantage of the crown prince. He has been diverting the media channels to fabricate, distort the news. Okaz, Arab News, Al-Arabiyya is the prominent newspaper and media outlet which causes the worsening of the relations. On the other hand, the kingdom has been using economy and religion for its competition with Turkey. It has been reported that there is an unofficial embargo on Turkish products. Turkish traders are suffering from that unlawful move taken by the Saudi government. Lastly, the pilgrimage can also be politicized and could badly affect the relations.
The latest rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE in terms of economic competition shows that the bloc politics against Turkey started to decline. In this sense, the UAE abandoned its anti-Turkish stance on regional issues. The rift between two Gulf actors can accelerate the normalization between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Since that rift, Saudi media stops to defame Turkey and president Erdogan. It seems that Saudi Arabia has abated the intensity of anti-Turkish stance. The state of loss in alignment with the UAE may have a positive impact on Saudi Arabia-Turkey normalization. This change is also about changing the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia witnessed that Turkey proves its power politics when Ankara stands firmly in regional issues such as Libya, Syria. Turkey has changed the balance of power in Libya by signing a treaty with the Government of National Unity. Moreover, Turkey has been waging a successful war against PKK/PYD which is backed by the US. In addition to these, Turkey pursued a balancing between Russia and the US. Purchasing S-400 and fighting directly against PKK/PYD indirectly against the US demonstrates that Turkey is extremely determined to achieve strategic autonomy or independence in foreign policy. On the other hand, Turkey helped Azerbaijan to win during the last war with Armenia when Ankara sided with her by providing technical military assistance. Therefore, Saudi Arabia understood that Turkey has the power to change the regional balance of power. Without support from the US or the UAE, Riyadh can’t deal with Turkey. Besides that, the latest situation in Afghanistan can also contribute to the normalization process. Along with Qatar, Turkey is the most active actor in the enigma of Afghanistan. Ankara has been in contact with the Taliban regime which Saudi Arabia perceives as potential threats to the security of the al-Saud regime. Therefore, Saudi Arabia would not like to encounter Turkey in Afghanistan.[xxiii] Lastly, the covid-19 and the economic challenges to both countries raise hopes with regards to normalization.
Since the latest days of 2020, the balance of power in the Middle East seems to be newly set. Not surprisingly, all actors in the region repositioned themselves due to the change in the White House. Some scholars argue that the geopolitical competition would be easier. The geopolitical realities such as economic recession due to the pandemic, security threats such as terror outbreak from endless war, uncertainty and ambiguity of competition of the US with China and Russia are the main factors that pave the way for normalizing the relations between countries in the region. This new trend has started to be talked about in terms of normalizing Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations. Constructive steps taken by both sides have appeared in the last year. But concrete moves haven’t been taken yet. Although there is a noticeable change in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, it is not likely to normalize Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations immediately in the near future. Because, it is likely that Saudi Arabia will not abandon its anti-democratic stance. If Saudi Arabia changes its perception about Turkey and decides that Turkey is not an existential threat to its regime, the relations will be stronger. On the other hand, it can be predicted that if the US policy towards the region did not change, the relations will not change radically. As the two crown princes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s effects continue, influence, shape, and divert their countries’ policy towards Turkey, the normalization in Saudi Arabia-Turkey relations get blood from a stone. But the disputes in the UAE-Saudi Arabia ally can be seen as a positive sign for improving Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations. The crown princes are not totally agreeing with all issues such as ending the crisis of the Gulf, policy towards Yemen and other issues that are related to the economy which are seen as a competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Therefore, if Saudi Arabia or literally more openly Mohammad bin Salman abandons to follow the policies that are determined by the crown prince Mohammad bin Zayid, Turkey- Saudi Arabia relations are easy to be normalized. On the other hand, all sub-factors such as the media, economy are still controlled by those who don’t have the will to revive the relations. There is a political will in Turkey to normalize the relations with Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia also wants to normalize its relations with Turkey, all these factors which are causing the deterioration of the relations must be reconsidered. To sum up, for having straighthead relations, Saudi Arabia needs to abandon the concern on democracy and perception of Turkey as existential threat. Secondly, it must stop competing with Turkey to fill the political vacuum that is left by the US. Thirdly, Saudi Arabia must understand Turkey’s national security concerns. Fortly, it would be contributed if Saudi Arabia exists from the axis of status quo orientation. In this sense, for the sake of its national interest, Saudi Arabia needs to keep the UAE at bay. Lastly, the media and economic tools should not be used for increasing the tension. The political freedom of expression and reforms will be amendatory for relations. In the short term, without these steps being taken, expecting or predicting the relations will be normal or stronger as pre-2010 will be only optimistic expectation.
[i] Imad K. Harb, “Saudi Arabia Ends the GCC Crisis”, Arab Center Washington D.C., 07 January 2021. It was the Saudi side who was willing to end the crisis, not the UAE. Therefore, many analyst argue that since the end of crisis many problems that were buried started to come to light. Ryan Bohl, “Saudi Arabia & UAE: Competition Among Allies”, Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, 29 April 2021.
[ii] Even the problems are not solved completely the crisis that began in 2017 is ended. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, “Has the GCC crisis been resolved?”, Al Jazeera, 6 January 2021.
[iii] “Saudi Arabia proposes ceasefire in Yemen, Houthis sceptical”, Middle East Monitor, 22 March 2021.
[iv] John Davison, “Saudi Arabia, Iran held talks more than once in Iraq – Iraqi president,” Reuters, 5 May 2021.
[v] Trita Parsi, “Why Mohammed bin Salman Suddenly Wants to Talk to Iran”, Foreign Policy, 29 April 2021.
[vi][vi] Tamara Abueish, “Saudi Arabia’s King Salman orders KSrelief to send aid to Turkey after earthquake”, Al Arabiyya English, 07 November 2020.
[vii][vii] “أنباء-عن-زيارة-قريبة-لإردوغان-إلى-طرابلس” (About Erdogan’s near visit to Trablus), الشرق الاوسط, 07 نوفمبر 2020.
[viii] “How the UAE reduced Saudi Arabia into a subordinate ally in Libya”, TRT World, 07 May 2020.
[ix] “8 Turkish schools to be shut in Saudi Arabia by end of 2021”, Daily Sabah, 28 April 2021.
[x] Giorgio Cafiero, “Joe Biden’s effect on Saudi Arabia’s MBS”, TRT World, 6 May 2021.
[xi] David Gardner, “Turkey’s foreign policy of ‘precious loneliness”, The Financial Times, 16 November 2015.
[xii] “Turkey ‘seeking to repair’ ties with Saudi Arabia, says it ‘respects’ court decision regarding Khashoggi”, Arab News, 26 April 2021.
[xiii] “Saudi Arabia’s King Salman receives call from Turkey’s Erdogan”, Arab News, 14 April 2021.
[xiv] Andrew Wilks, “Turkey, Saudi Arabia eye improved ties after Gulf crisis ends”, Al Jazeera, 25 January 2021.
[xv] Jonathan Fenton-Harvey, “What Drives the United Arab Emirates’ War on Political Islam?”, Inside Arabia, 14 February 2020; Raja Abdulhaq, “UAE Role in Global War on ‘political Islam’”, Middle East Monitor, 20 November 2014.
[xvi] Seth Cropsey and Gary Roughead, “A U.S. Withdrawal Will Cause a Power Struggle in the Middle East”, Foreign Policy, 17 December 2019; Shalom Lipner, “How Obama and Trump left a vacuum in the Middle East”, Brooking Institute, 28 November 2017.
[xvii] Shadi Hamid, “Islamism, the Arab Spring, and the Failure of America’s Do-Nothing Policy in the Middle East”, The Atlantic, 9 October 2015.
[xviii] Vakkas Doğantekin, “Obama aligned with PKK terror group, not Kurds: Expert”, Anadolu Agency, 07 November 2019.
[xix] “Kushner and MbS’ relationship sets Trump’s MidEast policy”, Middle East Monitor, 9 December 2018; Mohamad Bazzi, “The heart of the US-Saudi relationship lies in the Kushner-prince friendship”, The Guardian, 10 March 2019.
[xx] “Why UAE and KSA’s Hostility against Turkey is escalating”, Middle East Observer, 4 May 2020.
[xxi] Mehmet Rakipoglu, “Cleaning the House: Anti-Opposition Campaign in Saudi Arabia”, Politics Today, 11 July 2019.
[xxii] Ali Bakeer, “The Saudi-UAE axis has destabilising plans beyond the Gulf”, Al Jazeera, 20 June 2019.
[xxiii] The latest developments in Afghanistan also easied the tension between Turkey and the UAE. See more details. Mehmet Rakipoğlu, “Abu Dabi-Ankara hattında yakınlaşma”, Anadolu Ajansı, 07 Eylül 2021. (Turkish)
*Mehmet Rakipoğlu is a research asistant at Middle East Institute, Sakarya University. His Research interests are; foreign policy of the Gulf countries, Turkey- GCC countries relations, and religion-politics relations