Time for Saudi Arabia and Turkey to reset the clock
I have long emphasized the importance and necessity of establishing a comprehensive and solid relationship between Turkey and the Gulf states. If a new era is to start between Turkey and Saudi Arabia after frosty relations for years, it should be built on a mutual understanding of each other’s priorities and vision for the region. Rather than limiting Turkish-Saudi relations to the spheres of politics, economy and security, there is a need for a broader perspective to explore other areas in which to develop these relations on a sustainable basis.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Saudi Arabia on Thursday for a two-day visit. It is his first to the Kingdom since July 2017, when he also visited Kuwait and Qatar in the early days of the diplomatic spat between Doha and other Gulf capitals. At the time, the visit was presented by Ankara as an example of “intra-regional solidarity.”
This week’s visit takes place in a very different context, against a changing geopolitical landscape, and is being viewed by many as a pivotal moment in Turkish-Saudi relations. It comes as the two countries are recalibratingtheir policies for the post-COVID era, and as the region faces disquieting risks from the Russia-Ukraine war. “As two brotherly countries with historical, cultural and social ties, we are striving to increase all kinds of political, military and economic relations and start a new era,” Erdogan said.
Beyond the already known political and economic aspects, this rapprochement between Ankara and Riyadh should be viewed as an opportunity to benefit from the unexplored facets of the relationship. For years, the points of divergence between Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been highlighted, but there has not been much focus on the points of convergence.
In geopolitical terms, the limitations that prevented a solid strategic and institutionalized partnership between Turkey and Saudi Arabia emerged visibly after a series of developments that became a litmus test in relations. Several initiatives launched in the early 2000s failed to turn into sustained engagement that could haveboosted relations to an altogether new level.
Now that Turkey and Saudi Arabia seem to have broken the ice with Erdogan’s visit, what steps can they take to move beyond the stalled nature of the relationship and institutionalize their relations for long-term mutual benefits?
Sowing the seeds through cultural and public diplomacy will build bridges between nations and encourage new perspectives.
Most importantly, this rapprochement must be established on common values and mutual ambitions for socioeconomic development. Sowing the seeds through cultural and public diplomacy will build bridges between nations and encourage new perspectives for the future. The contacts between nongovernmental organizations, academics, artists and the media can bolster and strengthen official relations. Saudi Arabia has been engaged in several development projects in the fields of entertainment, arts, and tourism. This is one area where the two countries can cooperate and bring together their peoples, who could act as de facto diplomats.
Beside this, the two countries can also revitalize the platforms that enabled them to cooperate in the 2000s. They could use the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council as significant platforms to foster relations. Both are active members of the OIC, in which they cooperate on a number of issues ranging from Palestine to Kashmir. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have worked hard to make the organization more active, and the OIC was a tool that enabled both countries to easily cooperate in the 2000s.
Next, meetings of the Turkish-Saudi Coordination Council, which enables all kinds of cooperation on political, military, intelligence and economic issues, could be revitalized. The last one took place in Ankara in February 2017, when the Saudi and Turkish foreign ministers discussed the possibility of increasing free trade. Now that the UAE and Turkey are engaged in final talks on a comprehensive economic partnership agreement, a similar path could be followed by other Gulf countries, most notably Saudi Arabia as the heavyweight of the region. Especially after Turkey’s recent reconciliation with the Gulf states, which is mainly based on economic benefit, the topic of a free trade agreement with the GCC as a bloc is once again on the agenda.
Thirdly, the major issues that led to the tension between Saudi Arabia and Turkey — such as the Cairo-Ankara rift, the Muslim Brotherhood issue, or the spat with Qatar — are no longer present, or have been partially resolved by regional and international dynamics. New steps could therefore be taken to imolement the GCC-Turkey Strategic Dialogue Mechanism of 2008.
In sum, it is important for Turkey and Saudi Arabia to seize the incentives to emphasize strategic partnership with institutional tools and soft power. Platforms such as the OIC and GCC, public and cultural diplomacy, and cooperation in the realms of security and economy, could each be key components in institutionalizing the Turkish-Saudi relationship.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz