Shaky Saudi-Turkey alliance navigates testing waters

Shaky Saudi-Turkey alliance navigates testing waters
3 min read
28 February, 2015
Analysis: As Turkey's president visits the Saudi king in Riyadh, it is likely that their differences will be set aside. But with Sisi also in town, tensions might yet surface.
Syria and Turkey agree in principle to the arming and training of Syrian rebels [AFP]

Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has on Saturday started a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, where it is expected he and King Salman al-Saud will discuss the situation in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Libya.

This is Erdogan's second visit to the kingdom in 2015, and reflects Saudi Arabia's recognition of Turkey's key role in the region.

Regional 'superpowers'

Despite this, Erdogan's visit to Riyadh comes during tense times for the two regional powers, particularly after the ousting of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.

Ankara supported the deposed president and his party, while Saudi Arabia has been a strident critic of the Muslim Brotherhood and a keen backer of Egypt's current leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

When Salman ascended to the throne, it is thought that he made reconciliation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia one of his main foreign policy objectives.

Signs of this came two weeks ago, when Turkey's interior minister Efkan Ala met his Saudi counterpart, Muhammad bin Nayef, in Riyadh. 

In the Saudi capital, the two ministers discussed key regional issues, such as the training of moderate Syrian opposition forces.

Agreement on Syria

The situation in Syria is a major concern for both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and opposition to Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus is one issue both can agree on.

Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia agreed to host training programmes for moderate Syrian opposition groups beginning in March, and this was seen as a sign relations were warming between the Doha-Ankara allies and Riyadh.

This was in part engineered by the head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), Khaled Khoja, who is known to have close relations with the administration in Turkey. He succeeded Ahmed Jarba, who was viewed as an ally of Saudi Arabia.

The potential rapprochement boosts Ankara's role in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis) of which Saudi Arabia is a key Arab member. 

It comes after Ankara was said to have upset Riyadh by training Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

     Both countries strongly oppose the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in Yemen.

However, more recent developments in Saudi Arabia's southern neighbour, Yemen, could also help patch this rift. 

Both countries strongly oppose the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in Yemen.

Points of disagreement

Yet divisions remain between Riyadh and Ankara, and leaked reports that suggest Sisi will be in Riyadh at the same time as Erdogan could amplify these.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey say in public that they have set aside their differences over Egypt, but Erdogan has not weakened his opposition to the Egyptian coup leader.

Sisi, meanwhile, is expected to use the opportunity in Riyadh to reject any possibility of reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which would be an embarrassment for the Turkish leader.

"Sisi will tell the Saudi king that Qatar did not do what it should have done to achieve rapprochement between the two sides, based on the initiative of the late King Abdullah, and that Egypt is waiting for effective steps towards rapprochement," an Egyptian government source told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

According to this source, who asked to remain anonymous as they were not authorised to speak on behalf of the government, it appears that a joint Egyptian-Saudi-Jordanian military committee might be declared to deal with possible dangers in Yemen.

If such an alliance comes into formation, it would likely have a significant impact on the balance of power in the region.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.