by Neville Teller
The feud is over. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are on speaking terms again. As of June 22, 2022, the long battle between them to achieve political dominance in the Sunni Islamic world has been set aside.
At the latter end of 2021 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s standing with much of the world was at a low ebb At home the forecast for 2022 showed Turkey on a steep economic decline fuelled by soaring inflation. Even in December 2021 the inflation rate in Turkey was over 36 percent. Moreover, Erdogan had the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for June 2023, well in mind. So Turkey set in train a wholesale rebooting and softening of its international relations. A change of approach was signalled to the EU, to Egypt, to Iran, to Greece, surprisingly to Israel – and yes, even to Saudi Arabia.
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Relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia had been at rock bottom ever since the afternoon of October 2, 2018, when journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), was seen entering the Saudi consulate building in Istanbul, never to emerge.
Having listened to purported recordings of conversations inside the consulate made by Turkish intelligence, a UN special rapporteur concluded that the journalist had been “brutally slain” inside the building by a 15-strong team of Saudi agents, and that his body was then dismembered.
Khashoggi’s murder sparked worldwide outrage. Erdogan denounced the assassination as “savage” and “premeditated”. US intelligence agencies concluded that the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, had approved the operation. MBS denied playing any role.
A year after the killing, a Saudi court found five people guilty of directly participating in the killing and sentenced them to death. The sentences were later commuted to 20-year prison terms. Three others received lesser sentences for covering up the crime. Turkey rejected this outcome as “scandalous”, and for almost two years a court in Istanbul had been trying 26 Saudi officials in absentia on charges of premeditated murder or destroying evidence.
That was the position on April 28, 2022, when Erdogan, in pursuit of his policy of resetting Turkey’s foreign relations, flew to Saudi Arabia for meetings with King Salman and the virtual ruler of the country, MBS. It was not long before the Saudi state news agency was publishing images of the Turkish president embracing the Crown Prince and in close discussion with his father, the King.
The visit came as Turkey’s annual inflation rate hit 70 percent and domestic prices across the board were soaring ever higher. Erdogan, seen by the Turkish public as primarily responsible for the problem, came to Saudi Arabia seeking what he termed “a new era” in bilateral ties, and no doubt financial assistance. His Saudi hosts undoubtedly had requirements of their own as a quid pro quo for any assistance they would offer.
Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas had long been a bone of contention with Saudi Arabia, and indeed with Egypt and with Israel. On his return to Turkey Erdoğan, asserting that “diplomatic circumstances have changed”, shut down the Brotherhood’s Mekameleen TV station and restricted the group’s public relations. In addition, the Turkish government began expelling Hamas activists, including members of the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, its military wing. These moves were clearly a direct message to Saudi Arabia, and the world, that a sea-change in Turkey’s foreign relations was in progress.
Erdogan’s discussions with MBS and his subsequent actions must have gone down well in Riyadh, to say nothing of the Turkish government’s decision on June 17, 2022, to drop all charges against suspects in the Khashoggi case and hand it over to Saudi Arabia. For on June 22 MBS was stepping onto Turkish soil, beginning what might be described as an historic visit to the country.
The Crown Prince – who, in March 2018 had referred to Turkey as part of a “triangle of evil” alongside Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood – met Erdogan in the Turkish capital, Ankara. In a joint statement after the talks, the two leaders said they were determined to start a “new period of cooperation,” adding that the talks reflected “the depth of the perfect relations” between them. They had discussed how the two countries could start easing trade and cooperating more closely in a whole variety of areas including energy, business, defense, and artificial intelligence.
Saudi’s economy is currently booming. Saudi Aramco says that as global economic growth recovered from a pandemic-induced downturn, its 2021 net profit soared by more than 120 percent. In short, Saudis are in a position to invest abroad, and Saudi Arabia is in apposition to support and improve the ailing Turkish economy.
With the 2023 presidential elections in mind, Erdogan is no doubt hoping to replicate his success when normalizing Turkey’s relations with the United Arab Emirates in February 2022. The Gulf state celebrated the new-found friendship by signing 12 agreements across the defense, commercial and cultural sectors and announcing a $10 billion fund to support investments in Turkey.
Interviewed about the implications of the new-found Saudi-Turkish relationship, Saudi businessman Abdullah Al-Maleihi, head of Al-Tamayoz Holding Company, said that companies in Saudi Arabia and Turkey have already opened negotiations about expanding business dealings in a variety of fields. Turkish real estate, he said, is considered one of the most popular Turkish commercial sectors to attract Saudi investors, while the infrastructure sector within Saudi Arabia offers great opportunities to Turkish companies. He believed that the projected expansion of economic, investment and commercial cooperation would lead to the reorganization of the Saudi-Turkish Business Council.
A new era of bilateral trade, business and government-to-government cooperation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia seems about to dawn. The development is to be welcomed for its own sake. It is also a significant strengthening of the anti-Iran alliance that is building in the Middle East.