Analysis - Political Transformations

Tangled Interests

The Saudi Crown Prince’s visit to Turkey
Sunday، October 02، 2016
Tangled Interests

Turkish and Saudi leaders have been exchanging frequent visits of late, most recently Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef’s trip to Ankara at the end of September 2016. These visits reflect the importance both countries place on their bilateral relations. Both Riyadh and Ankara put enormous value on cooperation and coordination concerning critical issues in the region, as well as enhancing bilateral ties more generally.

That does not discount, however, their profound disagreements over certain matters and regional policies - most notably, Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Russia and its overtures towards Iran. These issues demonstrate a double standard in Turkish policy, a contrast between the Turkish government’s ethical stances on Syria and Yemen, on the one hand, and on the other, its opportunistic approach towards building relationships and utilizing them to achieve a number of domestic and foreign policy goals. 

Implications of the Crown Prince’s visit

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef’s visit to Turkey was intended to restore the relationship between the two countries following a period of tension over allegations of Saudi involvement in the failed military coup in mid-July, and the Kingdom’s perceptions that the Turkish rapprochement with Moscow contradicted their consensus over the Syrian crisis. Those differences have so far halted the first meeting of the Saudi-Turkish Strategic Cooperation Council, formed during a visit by President Erdogan to Saudi Arabia last year and announced when King Salman visited Turkey in April 2016.

But these differences do not detract from the importance of the two countries’ shared approaches towards a number of regional issues and their determination to unify their policies on them. Most prominently:

The Syrian crisis. Both countries call for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad while supporting opposition forces on the ground and the political opposition represented by the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (the Syrian National Coalition). Both Riyadh and Ankara support a political solution based on the Geneva I agreement, which calls for a transitional government in which Bashar al-Assad plays no part.

Reforming Iraq. Turkish and Saudi leaders agree on the need to deal with the failure of the political process in Iraq by reviewing the makeup of Iraqi military and security institutions, allowing all parts of Iraqi society to play an active role in the country’s political life whilst adopting compatible policies in the Arab and Islamic worlds to limit Iranian influence.

The war in Yemen. Turkey supports the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and the Kingdom’s initiative for an Islamic Coalition against Terrorism. Turkey plays a limited role in operations in Yemen through statements and political support. However, Turkey’s presence is significant to ensure the alliance formation to potentially counter Iran, which is constantly trying to expand its influence, representing a challenge to both Ankara and Riyadh. The Crown Prince hinted at this when he said, during his trip to Turkey, that the two countries are “clearly targeted” and threatened, and called for the countries to consolidate joint efforts to deal with those threats.

American policy. Turkish and Saudi leadership are both convinced that US policy towards the region ignores their interests and their roles. In many cases, it imposes a threat; Ankara strongly suspects that the US administration was behind the failed coup against Erdogan and that US support for the Kurds has become a major security threat to Turkey.

Meanwhile, the Saudis believe that the declining importance of oil in US-Saudi relations means that Washington places less importance on its strategic ties with the Kingdom. The JASTA law recently passed in Congress, allowing states implicated in terrorism to be sued in American courts, reflected American conviction that Saudi Arabia’s clout is waning. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, therefore, place great value on bilateral ties between them as a lever to preserve their interests and strengthen their positions in the region concerning a number of sensitive issues.

Developing bilateral ties

Turkey has lost its Syrian market, which constituted an economic bridge to Jordan, the Gulf states, Lebanon and Egypt. Meanwhile, the price of oil has fallen, hitting Saudi revenues. Therefore, both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have seen an interest in strengthening their ties on economic and other fronts. Saudi Arabia wants to find alternatives to oil, while Turkey is looking for markets and opportunities for economic and military cooperation.

The Saudi-Turkish Strategic Cooperation Council was established precisely to that end; it is responsible for developing bilateral ties in several areas. The ministerial delegation that accompanied the Crown Prince to Turkey reflected this new tendency. When we talk about bilateral relations between Riyadh and Ankara, two fundamental levels take precedence:

Economic cooperation. Despite the fact that both countries have important regional roles and have signed a number of commercial and economic agreements, the volume of trade between them has not passed $8 billion annually, according to the latest statistics.

That figure is low considering the fact that an average of 800 Saudi companies reportedly operate in Turkey, while a further 200 Turkish companies operate in Saudi Arabia. Turkish companies concentrate on infrastructure projects such as the renovation and operation of the Prince Mohammad bin Abdulaziz Airport in Medina, among others. Saudi companies are more focused on real estate investments in Turkey, investing some $17 billion there. Furthermore, both countries are seeing increased tourism from one another.

According to estimates from the Saudi Ministry of Trade and Industry, companies from Turkey and Saudi Arabia are working on around 159 joint projects, including 41 in the manufacturing sector. After the signing of several trade and economic agreements between the two countries during Crown Prince Muhammad’s visit, it is estimated that the volume of bilateral trade will hit $20 billion in the next few years.

Military and security cooperation. Military and security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Turkey has brought a new element to bilateral ties. This cooperation manifests in several areas, for example, the signing of an agreement last February between Asilsan, a Turkish high-tech defense supplier, and Taqnia, a technology development and investment company owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia. The deal establishes a joint venture in Saudi Arabia, specialized in electronic defense equipment, which will design, manufacture and develop radar systems and electronic warfare equipment to meet the needs of the Kingdom across the region.

The Kingdom also took part in the “al-Nour” military exercise at the Konya military base in Turkey this year, as well as the Anatolian Eagle air force exercise and the multinational Efes exercises. Turkey, in turn, participated in Saudi Arabia’s Northern Thunder exercise alongside the Gulf States and twenty other countries in February 2016. Furthermore, Saudi jets are stationed at Turkey’s Incirlik base to carry out military maneuvers, on top of counter-terrorism cooperation, which is demonstrated in Saudi support for Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria.

Limiting factors

Despite the political consensus between Riyadh and Ankara seeing on most issues affecting the region, there are factors which may limit mutual trust between them and their willingness to take joint action. Most importantly, their respective stances on the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, apart from Qatar, see the organization as a terrorist group. Turkey, on the other hand, has become the political incubator of the group under a government that uses the Brotherhood’s ideology as an aspect of its policy towards the Arab world.

This stance manifests in sharp differences between Saudi Arabia and Turkey over Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. While Saudi Arabia has supported Sisi and emphasized the importance of Egypt’s role in bringing about a regional balance and countering Iranian influence, Turkey adopts a pre-formed political ideology towards Sisi’s rule. Cairo sees this as Turkish interference in its internal affairs. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia has not succeeded in bringing about reconciliation between the two countries.

On top of ideological factors, the way the Turkish government manages relations with Russia and Iran opposes the political positions Ankara declares it takes regarding the Syrian and Yemeni crises. Turkey favors the principle of “special interests” with Moscow and Tehran over the political agreement with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh sees this not just as undermining the two countries’ shared political outlook, but as a blow to the two countries’ policies. The policy gives Moscow the ability to take advantage of the Syrian war and encourages Iran to interfere more in the Yemeni crisis. That means that closer Saudi-Turkish cooperation is subject to the calculations and different priorities of each side.

Keywords: Saudi ArabiaTurkeyForeign Policy

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