With President Joe Biden’s administration announcing the end of US support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, taking a more careful look at US arms sales to Riyadh, and deciding that it will declassify an intelligence report about the Jamal Khashoggi murder case, the kingdom must now work with a new White House that is less Saudi-friendly than Donald Trump’s administration. Moreover, against the backdrop of the al-Ula summit held in early January that led to an official Saudi-Qatari rapprochement, Riyadh may seek to cool tensions with Turkey in order to have more options in the region amid a period of uncertainty in US-Saudi relations.
During the span of time between Biden’s electoral victory in November and his inauguration in January, statements coming out of Ankara and Riyadh suggested improvements in Turkish-Saudi dealings were possibly beginning to take shape. On November 21, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi King Salman held a phone call just before the G20 Summit in Saudi Arabia kicked off. The two leaders discussed their shared belief that Turkish-Saudi dialogue must continue in order to overcome problematic issues in bilateral ties. Soon after, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud stated that the kingdom’s relationship with Ankara was “good and amicable” and he denied any informal Saudi boycott of Turkey’s products. After the virtual summit concluded, Erdogan congratulated the Saudis for the event.
On November 26, Ankara’s chief diplomat Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his Saudi counterpart discussed Turkish-Saudi relations as well as issues across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Çavuşoğlu stated that “a strong Turkey-Saudi partnership benefits not only our countries but the whole region.” These positive exchanges followed Saudi government support for Turkey in the wake of the 2020 Aegean Sea earthquake that struck Turkey and Greece in late October 2020.
Could these diplomatic moves be concrete evidence of Riyadh and Ankara’s mutual determination to work through difficult issues in order to develop a warmer bilateral relationship in 2021?
Needless to say, even with Saudi Arabia ending its blockade of Qatar and restoring diplomatic relations with Doha, there are many problems in Riyadh’s relationship with Ankara that will not be easy to address. These include the Jamal Khashoggi affair, Libya’s civil war, Riyadh’s alleged support for the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), claims of Saudi involvement in the 2016 Turkish coup attempt, and the kingdom’s support for Greece as tensions remain high in the eastern Mediterranean. All of these issues have left Turkey and Saudi Arabia distrustful of each other.
It is reasonable to assume that Saudi Arabia and Turkey may act differently in the post-Trump period and see more to gain than to lose by shifting the trajectory of bilateral ties.
Although the US is not the only important variable in the equation, the transition from former President Donald Trump to President Biden requires certain adjustments from both Ankara and Riyadh. It is reasonable to assume that Saudi Arabia and Turkey may act differently in the post-Trump period and see more to gain than to lose by shifting the trajectory of bilateral ties in ways that lead to warmer relations.
“[Trump] provided the green light for [MbS] to crack down on his opponents, family members, businessmen, intellectuals and human rights activists,” wrote Ali Bakeer, a Middle East expert based in Ankara. “Trump shielded MbS after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and protected him from the repercussions of the Saudi journalist’s murder in his country’s consulate in Istanbul. He also allowed the kingdom to continue its military campaign in Yemen without constraints and sent troops to Saudi Arabia to defend it against Iranian aggression. In this context, Biden will be nothing like Trump.”
Turkey’s leadership too, which, like Saudi Arabia, would have liked a Trump victory in November, is facing the realities of the Biden presidency which could create dilemmas for Ankara. Various issues such as Turkey-Russia defense links, tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, US-YPG relations, and human rights matters could fuel greater friction between Ankara and Biden’s administration. Hence, Ankara would like to improve relations with both Saudi Arabia and Israel in order to counter Turkey’s potential problems with the new leadership in Washington.
Now that there has been partial Gulf Arab reconciliation, the Turks can improve their ties with Riyadh without having to do so at the expense of the Ankara-Doha alliance.
At the same time, easing tension in Saudi-Qatari relations can also bode well for improvements in Ankara and Riyadh’s bilateral affairs. Now that there has been partial Gulf Arab reconciliation, the Turks can improve their ties with Riyadh without having to do so at the expense of the Ankara-Doha alliance. Also, with the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement playing out, the kingdom is likely to perceive the Turkish military presence in Qatar as less of a threat to Riyadh even if it remains a source of tension.
That said, there are inevitable stumbling blocks that will challenge Turkey and Saudi Arabia to advance their own rapprochement process. Undeniably greater tension exists between Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) than between the Turkish president and King Salman. Described in Turkish media as the “primary catalyst of Riyadh’s position on Turkey,” MbS has in the past made statements referring to Turkey as a member of a “triangle of evil,” even as King Salman and Erdogan maintain a respectful relationship. The Turkish president never said, or even implied, that King Salman had any blood on his hands in connection to the Khashoggi affair, even as Ankara continues to raise awareness of MbS’ purported role in the murder of Khashoggi. The ongoing trial of Saudis in absentia over the Khashoggi saga underscores how this sensitive issue continues to create problems for MbS in Turkey. How MbS’ ascendancy to the Saudi throne would impact Riyadh’s relationship with Ankara remains to be seen, but it could easily undermine the prospects for any long-term rapprochement.
The UAE’s Role
It is difficult to avoid bringing the United Arab Emirates (UAE) into this analysis given the extent to which this Gulf powerhouse has leverage over Saudi Arabia and other actors in the Middle East. Undoubtedly, Abu Dhabi would have a negative view of any strengthening of Saudi-Turkish relations. Although Saudi Arabia has faced major problems in its relationship with Ankara in recent years, the UAE’s relations with Turkey deteriorated far more.
As the Abu Dhabi leadership sees it, Turkey is the most dangerous state actor in the region—even more so than Iran. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), wants to keep the Saudi kingdom firmly aligned with Abu Dhabi against Turkey. MbZ has vested interests in cultivating a deep wedge between the Saudi and Turkish governments, and Abu Dhabi can be counted on to play its cards to try to keep these tensions high.
As the Abu Dhabi leadership sees it, Turkey is the most dangerous state actor in the region—even more so than Iran.
The view from Ankara is that “the UAE will do all possible harm to prevent rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” explained Bulent Aras, Professor of International Relations in the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, in an interview with Inside Arabia. Emirati lobbying efforts in Washington and elsewhere are important to consider. “[The] UAE also sponsors anti-Turkey lobby activities,” said Aras. “There are political and media tools that the UAE can play against rapprochement unless there is a decisive Saudi will to control it.”
Ultimately, while a Saudi-Turkish rapprochement is anything but inevitable, it is safe to contend that any major improvement in relations between Ankara and Riyadh will leave officials in Abu Dhabi unsettled. The UAE has spent recent years working to establish a solid bloc of anti-Turkish state and non-state actors that would work together in order to counter Ankara’s clout. The UAE’s rapprochement with the Syrian government as well as Abu Dhabi’s formalization of diplomatic relations with Israel were two bold moves made for various reasons, including the UAE’s quest to unite more regional players against Ankara.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia moving away from its support for Abu Dhabi-driven efforts to challenge Turkey could become a new source of tension in relations between the Saudi kingdom and the UAE in 2021. It would also signal the possible collapse of an anti-Turkish coalition that Abu Dhabi began to establish in 2019. In the months and years ahead, the Saudis will need to make difficult decisions about where to position Riyadh in relation to Ankara and Abu Dhabi’s “Cold War.”
Co-author: Tanmay Kadam is an India-based intern at Gulf State Analytics.