A Turkish-Saudi Rapprochement Could Promote Stability in the Region

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a NESA Alumnus and a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Dr. Khatib frequently publishes Op-Eds in the Arab News and is based in the UAE.

1 December 2020 – King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Erdogan of Turkey touched base recently as part of the preparations for the G20.  A statement issued by President Erdogan’s office announced that the two countries agreed to improve bilateral ties and to solve their differences through dialogue.  This diplomatic declaration potentially signals a change in methodology in bilateral relations.  Relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been somewhat strained for the past several years, particularly following the Qatar boycott initiated by Saudi Arabia.  This declaration, coming amidst a difficult year for both countries due to the pandemic and ongoing regional tensions, sends signals that both countries favor a restart of relations before the new American administration takes over.

The Trump Administration emphasized relations with Saudi Arabia as part of its MENA region engagement and U.S. relations with Turkey, while still somewhat troubled, improved from their state during the Obama Administration.  Iran was the focal point of U.S. security efforts in the MENA region for President Trump, so even though relations were relatively good between the U.S. and Turkey and the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey declined due in part to the Iran question.

With the Biden Administration to take office in January, there are signals that the new administration wishes to pursue talks with Ian over the nuclear issue.  This change in the American approach has potentially inspired a change in approach in Turkey and Saudi Arabia regarding bilateral relations.  Regardless of divergences regarding Iran and other regional topics, both states remain concerned about the Assad regime in Syria.

Potential improvements in the Saudi-Turkish relationship could help bring greater stability to the wider MENA region.  The rivalry between Turkey/Qatar and the Saudi/UAE/Egypt axes has taken its toll through various local conflicts in the region.  A Turkish-Saudi rapprochement could help reach reconciliation in conflict zones, such as that found in Libya. As now the Libyans have shown the willingness to sit on a negotiating table, Saudi and Turkey can play an important role in pushing the different parties to make concessions in order to reach an agreement.

Hence, it is in the Biden administration’s interest to encourage Saudi and Turkey to cooperate. As President-elect Biden promised to restore the US role in global affairs and to work with allies, a smooth Turkish-Saudi relationship could make the task of coordinating with allies in the region much easier.  Improvements in the bilateral relationship could also help make the Iranian question less complicated.  Iran was able to cooperate with Turkey despite American pressure. Halkbank offered financial facilities to Iran in defiance to US sanctions. Better coordination with Saudi with Turkey could lead to the closing of loopholes Iran used to bypass American pressure and in turn encourage Tehran to return to the negotiating table.

Turkey has other interests that are served by better relations with Riyadh.  Disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean could be made less heavy with Saudi Arabia more interested in balancing the interests of disputing parties.  Saudi Arabia also represents an important market for Turkish products. Trade between Saudi and Turkey reached $8 billion in 2012 and was expected to grow.  However, political divergences led to cessation of trade growth.  The informal boycott of Turkish products added blow to the commercial exchange between the two countries

The Saudis can also benefit from a rapprochement with Turkey, as Turkey could assist diplomatically with overtures to Qatar.  With enough progress, the question of Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, something Riyadh strongly opposes, could be discussed amongst the region.  The Saudi Foreign Minister signaled in October that it is possible to end the rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  The rapprochement with Turkey may assist in lending towards better relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi and Turkey have many issues to solve in order to have smooth relations. The starting point should be changing the narrative. Both countries should issue conciliatory statements that lend towards better policy coordination. This could help to build regional consensus on key regional issues – from Syria to Yemen and so forth.  Any dialogue might face many hurdles and there are various issues on which agreement might not reached.  Nevertheless, a dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Turkey has a greater chance of contributing to regional stability than many other regional bilateral relationships.

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.