On March 2, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid his first official visit to Saudi Arabia after King Salman bin Abdulaziz succeeded the late King Abdullah. This is also Erdoğan's first visit to the Kingdom as the president of Turkey. The visit comes at a time of regional crises and global challenges in the Muslim world. Turkey and Saudi Arabia stand to benefit from stronger bilateral relations; their strategic cooperation on pressing regional issues is bound to have important repercussions for peace and security in the Middle East and the Muslim world. The high-level visits between the two countries have seen late King Abdullah visiting Turkey and the Turkish president and prime minister visiting the Kingdom many times. The current king paid a visit to Turkey in 2013 when he was crown prince.The current state of relations between the two countries is at a commendable level but far from reflecting the true potential. The bilateral trade at $7 billion indicates strong economic relations but there is room for more trade and investment. Political and diplomatic relations as well as tourism between the two countries are rapidly expanding. The strategic needs and priorities of these two regional powers require closer and more extensive cooperation on regional and global issues facing the Muslim world. The Arab Spring revolutions and counter-revolutions presented new opportunities and challenges for the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab people's demand for justice, equality, dignity and prosperity led to the overthrow of old dictators such as Mobarak and Qadhafi but also turned violent in Syria and Libya. With the takeover of the capital Sana by the Houthis, Yemen is in turmoil and now represents a major conflict area in the Gulf. The coup in Egypt created deep divisions and tensions in that country. Containing political tensions, repairing social divisions and opening up of the political space for all is a sine qua non of peace and stability. In Syria, the civil war has entered its fourth year and claimed more than 300,000 lives. Millions of Syrians have become refugees and internally displaced people. Furthermore, the war in Syria has turned that country into a breeding ground for violent extremism with ISIS taking over large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq. The new Iraqi Government is struggling with the consequences of a weak central government, ISIS threat, militia groups and a struggling economy despite oil revenues. The Palestinian issue remains at the heart of Middle East politics. With Prime Minister Netanyahu defying both the U.S. and Arab world, the peace process is in shatters. The Palestinian national reconciliation, facilitated by Saudi Arabia and supported by Turkey, is needed more than ever.
Sectarian tensions, extending from Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to Yemen, Bahrain and Pakistan, are causing deep divisions in the region. Turkey and Saudi Arabia believe that sectarian policies and communal strife have a big toll on the region and have to be replaced by a policy of regional peace and cooperation. King Salman has introduced a new energy into the Saudi political architecture. An experienced statesman, he considers regional peace and security a top priority for better political and economic relations in the region. His team is aware of the fact that regional tensions affect all countries including Saudi Arabia - a central point on which Turkey is in full agreement with Saudi Arabia.
Against this backdrop, President Erdoğan and King Salman agreed on expanding bilateral relations in five key areas. These include political, economic, security defense issues and wider cooperation in people-to-people and cultural relations. Closer cooperation at the political level will help develop a common regional outlook to lower tensions. Stronger economic relations will benefit Turkish and Saudi economies as the two economic powerhouses of the region. Wider cooperation on security and defense will provide a much-needed common strategy and mechanisms to prevent violent extremism and terrorism in all of its forms. Finally, increasing people-to-people relations and cultural ties will boost bilateral relations but also open up new lines of communications beyond sensational and often misleading media headlines.President Erdoğan's visit to Saudi Arabia and the warm reception King Salman and his government extended to him confirms that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are committed to developing stronger bilateral relations and will work together for regional peace, security and prosperity. The two countries share the same perspective on the crises embroiling the Middle East and North Africa. A strong Turkish-Saudi cooperation will go a long way in confronting the current crises.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey