Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations may enter a normalization period based on improved ties and coordination on regional issues, experts say, underlining the possible effects of expected changes in U.S. foreign policy under President-elect Joe Biden and their impact on Saudi Arabia's administration and policies.
Speaking to Daily Sabah, Ahmet Uysal, head of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), said we can expect a new period in Turkey-Saudi Arabian relations if the kingdom takes a more rational stand on foreign policy priorities under expected pressure from the new U.S. administration.
He said there is no need for conflict between the two regional powers: They can cooperate on many issues in the region if Saudi Arabia abandons its irrational position.
“It is all about the countries' will and vision. Turkey would be ready for such cooperation,” he added.
Ali Bakeer, an assistant professor at Qatar University's Ibn Khaldun Center, said it is too early to draw long-term conclusions when it comes to Saudi-Turkish relations, but there have been positive signs during the last two months that bilateral relations will get back on track.
“This trend might become clearer depending on several factors including Biden’s policies toward Riyadh and Ankara on the one hand and the possible deal between Washington and Tehran on the other,” he explained.
Uysal noted that bilateral relations between the two countries deteriorated following the Arab Spring in 2011 and relatively improved again during the rule of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
“Then, (Donald) Trump came and disrupted this direction. While Trump handed over the rule of the kingdom to (Crown Prince) Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), a new camp was formed in the region and Saudi Arabia moved away from Turkey once again," he explained.
Tayyar Arı, head of Uludağ University's International Relations Department, also noted that some kind of soft coup unfolded in the administration of Saudi Arabia in 2017. With Trump's support, MBS has become the de facto ruler of the kingdom, while King Salman was pushed aside. He added that the foreign policy approaches of MBS and King Salman had stark differences.
“During this period, a radical change in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy took place with the initiatives of Mohammed bin Salman. He aimed to redesign the region with radical policies based on the hostility against the Arab Spring elements and the Muslim Brotherhood and sympathy toward pro-Israel policies,” he said.
While an alliance was formed between the trio of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt to impose such policies in the region, Arı said, Turkey has continued to recognize King Salman as the legitimate ruler of Saudi Arabia by ignoring and opposing MBS’ de facto rule and policies.
Despite the strained ties between the two countries, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week discussed ways of enhancing ties with King Salman in a rare phone call since the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The phone call came on the eve of the G-20 leaders' summit hosted by Riyadh on Saturday and Sunday.
Erdoğan and the Saudi king discussed bilateral relations during the phone call and exchanged views on the G-20 summit, the Turkish Presidency said late Friday.
"President Erdoğan and King Salman agreed on keeping channels of dialogue open for the bilateral relations to be enhanced and for issues to be settled," it added.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been at odds for some years over foreign policy and attitudes toward regional issues. The murder of Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul sharply escalated tensions. The case sparked an international outcry and tarnished MBS' global reputation.
Khashoggi was strangled and his body cut into pieces by a 15-man Saudi squad inside the consulate, according to Turkish officials. His remains have not been found.
Erdoğan has said the order to murder Khashoggi came from "the highest levels" of the Saudi government.
In September, a Saudi court overturned five death sentences issued after a closed-door trial in Saudi Arabia that ended last year, sentencing them to 20 years in prison instead.
On Tuesday, a Turkish court added several new defendants to the case against Saudi officials charged with Khashoggi's murder, in a trial that Ankara says is needed to reveal the full truth behind the killing. At Tuesday's hearing in Istanbul, only the second session of the trial that opened four months ago, the court accepted a second indictment adding six defendants to the list of 20 Saudi officials already being tried in absentia.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud also said Saturday that relations with Turkey are "good and amicable," according to a statement cited by Reuters.
The foreign minister, whose country hosted the G-20 summit where Turkey was in attendance, denied any form of informal boycott of Turkish products.
Demands to boycott Turkish products surfaced through Saudi and Emirati social media activists in October. However, such calls had less impact on Turkish products.
Closer to home, he confirmed Saudi Arabia continues to seek a solution to the dispute with Qatar, although, he stressed that an answer must "address legitimate security concerns."
In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed a land, sea and air blockade, with the four states accusing Doha of supporting terrorist groups, an accusation vociferously denied by Qatar.
During this process, Turkey provided increased support to Qatar, boosting food and other exports to keep the country afloat after the boycott began. Trade between the two countries saw a significant rise during the period, with agreements being made for various future projects.
For more than a year, some Saudi and Turkish traders have speculated that Saudi Arabia was enforcing an informal boycott of imports from Turkey. Turkey's leading business groups urged Saudi Arabia last month to improve trade relations.
Khashoggi murder influential
In regard to the political forecasts about the near future, Arı expects a significant change in U.S. foreign policy during the term of Biden, who, along with his party, has fiercely opposed Trump’s foreign policy and is promising change.
“One of these changes in the U.S. foreign policy seems to be about Saudi Arabia. In the new period, the U.S. administration may again recognize King Salman as the leading representative of Saudi Arabia by pushing Mohammed bin Salman, who is considered to be the main responsible party for the Khashoggi murder, aside. The recent G-20 summit was an indicator of this,” he said, reiterating that American media and the international community are still exerting pressure on MBS for his alleged role in the Khashoggi murder.
During the G-20 summit last week, King Salman represented Saudi Arabia, while it was MBS who had been Riyadh's main representative in 2018 and 2019, Arı noted.
Uysal confirmed that the Khashoggi murder led to the collapse of the Gulf alliance’s prestige and revealed that MBS is a murderer instead of a reformer, which he was once presented as.
Pointing out the upcoming change in the U.S. administration, Uysal said that the liberal media and international community that Biden allies himself with are very sensitive about the issue of Khashoggi murder and will force Biden to act accordingly.
"The Saudis want to prepare for a scenario in which they come under heavy pressure from Biden’s administration for their role in Yemen, the Gulf crisis, relations with Iran and the murder of Khashoggi, by tilting toward Turkey," Bakeer also explained.
Commenting on what to expect from Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations in the new period, Arı said that he expects a normalization and improved relations, not radical changes. He said a change in Saudi Arabia’s policies will further affect other members of the regional alliance, namely the UAE and Egypt.
“I expect a normalization period and improved relations with Saudi Arabia under King Salman's administration. Saudi Arabia is a country in which Erdoğan gives high importance and displays sensitivity. There will be positive reflections of these changes on bilateral relations in the new period," he explained.
“During this period, MBS will be under pressure, and Saudi Arabia will have to come to a more normal position in terms of its policies. On the other hand, Turkey still stands in the same position," Uysal also said.
Better Saudi-Turkish relations will be good not only for the two regional players but also for the entire Middle East, Bakeer added, warning, however, that such a scenario has many opponents in both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.