ANKARA: Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu began an official two-day visit to the Kingdom on Monday in a bid to improve relations seriously undermined since 2018 by the Jamal Khashoggi case.
The visit followed a recent phone call between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz on May 4.
In a Reuters interview last month, presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said that Turkey, trying to bring about a positive agenda and a change of discourse regarding the Kingdom, respects the outcome of the Saudi trial about the journalist’s killing.
During the visit, bilateral relations, trade and regional issues, including Libya, are expected to be discussed, especially during Cavusoglu’s meeting with Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud.
“Since the fall of 2020, Turkey has been concertedly working to repair its relationships with regional powers in the Middle East,” Samuel Ramani, a Middle East expert at the University of Oxford, told Arab News.
“Turkey’s policy shift was driven by its desire for more investment and trade opportunities, its realization of the limits of unilateralism and desire to hedge against its increasingly erratic relationships with great powers, such as Russia, the United States, Europe and China,” he said.
The recent decision by Saudi Arabia to close eight out of 26 Turkish schools by the end of the 2020-2021 academic year drew anger from Ankara, which claimed that 2,256 Turkish students would face challenges in education elsewhere as they are not fluent in Arabic.
Ankara will also raise the issue of lifting the Saudi unofficial boycott of Turkish goods since 2019, which has resulted in a significant fall in Turkish exports to the Kingdom.
Experts consider this decision a signal that Saudi Arabia has some prerequisites for launching normalization with Turkey, particularly on its policies toward the Arab world — especially ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and its military presence in Libya, Somalia, Qatar, Iraq and Syria.
In the meantime, Turkish exporters have allegedly removed “Made in Turkey” tags on their products to bypass the blockade.
Turkish exports to Saudi Arabia dropped by 94 percent year-on-year and stood at about $75 million in the first three months of this year, while during the same period imports from Saudi Arabia rose from $430 million to some $600 million.
Cavusoglu will also pay a visit to Egypt after his meeting in the Kingdom to normalize ties with another regional actor after a long period of enmity.
“Turkey has reached out to Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and even the UAE to de-escalate tensions. These outcomes have had mixed results, as these powers still remain on opposite sides of the Eastern Mediterranean dispute, but Turkey has succeeded in de-escalating tensions with Egypt on Libya and this is seen in Ankara as an encouraging sign that could be replicated in Saudi Arabia,” Ramani said.
According to Ramani, the main issues that Saudi Arabia and Turkey will discuss are regional ones.
“The first is the eastern Mediterranean, but Saudi Arabia won’t budge from its alignment with Greece or accept Turkey’s 2019 energy deal with Libya. The second is Israel-Palestine, where both Turkey and Saudi Arabia will likely criticize Israel’s recent conduct in Al-Aqsa,” he said.
Experts note that this latest normalization drive by Turkey with the Gulf and Middle Eastern countries may be linked to an adjustment strategy with the new Biden administration in the US.
Galip Dalay, CATS fellow at SWP and non-resident fellow at Brookings Doha, expects a partial normalization of relations between Ankara and Riyadh.
“There is no meaningful conflict of interest between the parties and they are likely to take steps to partially de-escalate the tensions in the medium term,” he told Arab News.
“During the Arab Spring, Turkey and the Kingdom had ideological divergences as they took opposing sides. But they did not have any significant conflict in geopolitical terms. Turkey even supported to a certain extent Saudi Arabia’s policy choices in Yemen. However, with the Qatar crisis and Khashoggi case, the tensions escalated,” Dalay said.
Dalay anticipates rising tension between Turkey and Iran as they clash on geopolitical interests.
“Therefore Turkey wants to mend ties with the Arab camp to consolidate its position and adjust to the new reality in the region,” he said.