Turkey-Saudi relations have seen a recent thaw after both have been at loggerheads for months over an unofficial boycott of Turkish goods by the Gulf nation as well as increasing geopolitical rivalries.
For the record, Riyadh and Ankara have always drifted between competitor and partner, and have always relied on dialogue when needed.
When Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz decided to call President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a day before the virtual meeting of the G-20 heads of states, we saw that dialogue materialize. This was followed by remarks from the Saudi foreign minister, hailing amicable ties with Turkey and rejecting claims of any boycott on Turkish goods.
Turkey too has in good faith responded to the Saudi olive branch. While Erdoğan gave his address to the G-20 Leaders’ Summit, he commended the Saudi leadership and extended warm words to King Salman, who Ankara continues to see as the leader of the pro-Turkish, Saudi old guard.
In an earlier piece, I had argued that Saudi attacks on Turkey would only provoke a harsh answer from Ankara and that a commonsensical approach from the Saudi establishment was needed to reignite close relations. These recent steps point in that direction, as both Saudi Arabia and Turkey find that cooperation, rather than rivalry, better serves their interests.
It was in Syria that joint Turkish-Saudi endeavors brought Assad to his knees, only to have Russia and Iran intervene on his behalf. When working closely Turkey and Saudi Arabia are powerful players that can steer regional changes.
At the time, both countries expected a more robust American response to Bashar Assad’s atrocities but no avail. Former U.S. President Barack Obama's unwillingness to risk American soldiers dying in Syria and incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump's America First policy of isolationism further destabilized the Middle East.
In this power vacuum, regional powers – like Saudi and Turkey – filled the void left by the Americans. As is the nature of power politics, Turkish and Saudi interests clashed during this period, but now as Trump prepares to leave the White House to Joe Biden, an open critic of Riyadh’s regional agenda, Saudi Arabia has once again recognized the need to be on friendly terms with Turkey.
Trump gave a blank check to Saudi Arabia's ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), hoping to capitalize on the kingdom's oil wealth and generate revenue for American defense contractors.
Biden will not be so friendly to MBS and will be pressured by those more sensitive to human rights on his foreign policy team to contain Saudi endeavors in the region. For this reason, Riyadh has once again turned to Ankara in hopes that Turkey will balance the playing field.
Despite Saudi Arabia spending a vast amount of resources to reconstruct the country's image in Western minds, their efforts have largely been futile. Looking at Riyadh from Washington, American lawmakers do not hide their disdain for Saudi Arabia, a view that is far more pronounced in the Democratic Party.
If you were to ask me which country the Democrats despise more than Turkey, I would have to say, Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has to endure constant attacks from Congress, and without a friendly president, they’ll have a difficult time.
While senators and members of the House have in the past attempted to distance the U.S. from Saudi Arabia, presidents have always intervened to maintain links, as it is in the U.S.' best interests to preserve the relationship, despite the two countries' radically different philosophies.
This was the case when Trump bypassed Congress to authorize billions of dollars of arms sales to the kingdom by declaring the sale a matter of "emergency" even though MBS was largely thought to be complicit in Jamal Khashoggi's murder.
Biden is likely to continue on that same line but he is not expected to do as much as Trump in relieving Congressional pressure over Saudi Arabia. Biden has already openly called to end U.S. support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen, and will likely block possible sales of advanced weapons that may be used in the Yemeni conflict.
A revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the end of Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran has also stoked fear in Riyadh. Under Trump, Saudi Arabia had a steadfast ally against Iran, but now it seems likely some form of the JCPOA will be reinstated, increasing Tehran's ability to manoeuver in the region.
An Iran that is once again on the path to integrating with the global economy will make Saudi Arabia look more and more isolated in comparison.
Riyadh turns to Ankara
When Obama failed to address Turkey and Saudi Arabia's concerns in the region, both countries turned to one another for cooperation. In the total absence of American leadership in the Middle East under Trump, the two countries became rivals, as Turkish interests and Saudi aspirations became irreconcilable in different conflicts across the region. Now with the possibility that the U.S. will adopt a more proactive role, both countries are getting ready to make new calculations.
Saudi Arabia's calculations undoubtedly involve Turkey's role in the region. Compared to the Obama years, Turkey has grown to become an even more powerful regional player and has shown that its willing to defy the U.S. if its security calculations require it.
While Turkey does not consider Iran to be hostile, Saudi Arabia will still want to enlist Ankara's support against Tehran's regional agenda.
There is a long list of issues that cast a shadow over Turkish-Saudi relations, for the time being, Egypt and Libya to name a few. A possible détente requires more concrete steps from the Saudi leadership, who first and foremost should address Turkish concerns of a boycott and later prove that a meaningful regional partnership is still viable.
There is still room for Turkey and Saudi Arabia to cooperate on regional issues and conflicts, with Riyadh having until now rejected pressure from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to normalize ties with the Assad regime. Enlisting Turkish support for a solution to Yemen would aid in the Kingdom’s endeavors too.
Meanwhile, a rapprochement between Ankara and Riyadh would have spillover effects. Egypt could be swayed by Riyadh to form closer ties with Turkey, as these countries have maintained some dialogue over the last few months.
The major thorn in this equation is the UAE, which drives Saudi Arabia to engage in a destructive foreign policy and may pressure Riyadh to hold off on a détente with Turkey, though this is unlikely to change Saudi policy.
As the Middle East prepares for a post-Trump White House, Riyadh is looking for a partner in Turkey to counter a more involved U.S.
*Master of Science comparative politics candidate at the London School of Economics