Normalisation between a Saudi-led coalition and Qatar removed the barrier to reconciliation between Ankara and Riyadh.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman prior to their meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 23, 2017 [Presidency Press Service/Pool Photo via AP]
25 Jan 2021
Ankara, Turkey – Two years ago, relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia stood at one of the lowest points in the history of the two regional powers following the murder in Istanbul of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
His killing in October 2018 at the hands of Saudi agents in the kingdom’s consulate led to unprecedented Turkish denouncements of the Saudi government, highlighting what it said was the role of those close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, in the assassination plot.
Today, however, ties between Ankara and Riyadh appear on the verge of a return to cordiality, thanks in part to the detente between Turkey’s ally Qatar and the four-nation Saudi-led bloc that imposed an embargo on Doha in 2017.
Earlier this month, a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) saw Saudi Arabia and its allies agree to restore ties with Doha, including reopening airspace and borders.
The move was welcomed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “very beneficial”.
He added: “We hope that our position in Gulf cooperation will be re-established. This will make Gulf cooperation stronger.”
The rapprochement was followed by Qatar’s offer to mediate between Ankara and Riyadh.
“If these two countries see that the state of Qatar has a role in this mediation, then it is possible to do so. It is in everyone’s interest that there be friendly relations between these countries,” Qatari special envoy Mutlaq al-Qahtani said.
Prior to the GCC meeting, there had been signs of warming relations. At the start of a G-20 summit in November, Erdogan and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz spoke by telephone.
The leaders “agreed on keeping channels of dialogue open in order for bilateral relations to be enhanced and for issues to be settled”, the Turkish president’s office said.
The countries’ foreign ministers later met at an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation conference in Niger, after which Turkey’s Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted their partnership would “benefit not only our countries, but our entire region”.
Drastic US shift
While the split has defined many issues in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years, it was political developments on the other side of the world that played a major role in shaping fresh attitudes in Ankara and Riyadh, according to analysts.
“The main reason is that [former US President Donald] Trump lost the election and Saudi Arabia thinks that if [President Joe] Biden will put pressure on Riyadh then they have to look for new options,” said Ali Bakir, research assistant professor at Qatar University’s Ibn Khaldun Centre.
Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey anticipate the incoming Biden administration will drastically shift its priorities in the region, such as backing away from Trump’s policy of unrelentingly confronting Iran, and placing greater emphasis on human rights.
“If the Biden administration doesn’t put pressure on Riyadh, they won’t feel obliged to enhance their relations with Ankara,” Bakir said, adding Trump’s “endorsement” of Saudi actions in 2017 had led to the Gulf crisis.
Ahmet Evin, a political scientist at Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Centre, described Trump as “beholden” to the Saudi royal family.
“Without the Saudis aboard, Trump’s real estate empire would have gone bankrupt a while ago,” he said.
Both countries had “heavily invested politically in the Trump administration, partly because of personal relationships”, said Emre Caliskan, research fellow at the Foreign Policy Centre in London.
“Once Trump’s gone, they have to change the tone by shifting policies.”
The deterioration of Turkish-Saudi relations came to the fore following the 2011 Arab Spring, which saw Ankara throw its weight behind groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in the hope of installing governments sympathetic to Turkey’s Islamist-oriented ruling party.
Saudi Arabia and its allies are vehemently opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and have declared the group a “terrorist” organisation, causing members to flee their home countries and set up base in Istanbul.
Turkey’s support for Mohamed Morsi, who was elected Egyptian president in 2012 but deposed by the military a year later, was a prime example of Ankara’s backing for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The general who overthrew him and oversaw a crackdown on his supporters, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is backed by Riyadh.
The 2017 crisis saw Saudi Arabia and Egypt joined by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain to cut diplomatic ties and enforce a blockade on Qatar, accusing the country of supporting terrorism and being too close to their rival Iran.
Doha always denied these allegations.
They also issued a list of demands that included closing a Turkish military base in Qatar and ending all links to the Muslim Brotherhood and associated groups.
Erdogan condemned the sanctions, while the Turkish parliament agreed to deploy troops to Qatar. Turkey also arranged to ship food and other supplies to its beleaguered ally.
Subsequently, the Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians blocked Turkish media outlets, as well as popular Turkish soap operas, and there have been unofficial boycotts of Turkish goods.
The split was manifested in arenas such as Syria – where the Arab quartet moved to normalise relations with the Bashar al-Assad regime while Erdogan retained support for opposition fighters – and Libya’s conflict where Turkey backs the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord while Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt support renegade commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces.