Turkey and Saudi Arabia: A new era or cold reconciliation?
As part of a regional tour that took him to Egypt and Jordan, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) visited Turkey on 22 June.
The visit was his first since he assumed the position of the Crown Prince in 2017 instead of Prince Mohammad bin Nayef following a Saudi-led blockade on Qatar.
It comes after five years of tense relations between Ankara and Riyadh against the backdrop of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in his own country’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
In April, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia for the first time since 2017, where he met King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince MBS following more than a year of rapprochement efforts between the two countries.
The visit of the Turkish President coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, which prompted Erdogan to assert that it was an appropriate time to repair ties between the two brotherly countries.
"The visit comes after five years of tense relations between Ankara and Riyadh against the backdrop of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in his own country's consulate in Istanbul in 2018"
In the last two months, MBS’s reciprocal visit to Turkey was rescheduled twice on 25 May and 3 June, due to reasons related to King Salman’s health.
At the time, the Crown Prince reportedly wanted to visit Greece and Cyprus along with his visit to Turkey, which could have sent the wrong message to the Turks given recent Greek measures in the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean which were viewed as provocative by Ankara.
Ultimately, the Saudi Crown Prince dropped the idea of stopping by Athens and Nicosia and substituted them with stops in Cairo and Amman. Upon his arrival in Ankara, Turkey’s Vice President Fuat Oktay and several accompanying officials received MBS at the airport, while President Erdogan received him at the presidential complex, where an official reception was waiting for him.
Afterwards, the two leaders had a one-on-one meeting during which they reviewed bilateral relations, aspects of cooperation, and ways to develop them in various fields.
Following the official meeting, the Turkish side prepared a banquet in honour of the Crown Prince and the accompanying delegation. There were also two special gestures. At the dinner, a Saudi national song that glorifies the Saudis, King Salman, and his son was played. In a rare move, President Erdogan then accompanied MBS to the airport to bid him farewell.
At the conclusion of the visit, a written joint statement was issued stressing the determination of both sides to launch a new era of cooperation in bilateral ties, including in the political, economic, military, security, and cultural spheres.
The statement highlighted that “the official talks between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud were held in an atmosphere of sincerity and fraternity.”
According to the statement, "the two parties reaffirmed their commitment to further their coordination, collaboration, and exchange of views on crucial issues in the regional and international arena, which will support and promote security and stability in the region”.
Saudi Arabia thanked Turkey for supporting Riyadh's bid for EXPO 2030. The Crown Prince also expressed his gratitude for president Erdogan's kind hospitality, and the fondness and affection shown to him and his delegation during his visit.
In turn, President Erdogan conveyed his appreciation for King Salman’s efforts to organise hajj in 2021 despite the challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and expressed his satisfaction with the resumption of hajj and umrah this year.
Apart from political aspects and the references to cooperation and coordination between the two countries on the bilateral and regional level, a special focus in the statement was given to business, energy, security, defence, and tourism.
While the general atmosphere accompanying the visit was positive, one could not help but observe several issues that sent contradictory messages.
For example, some of the official Saudi media outlets decided to select and release inappropriate photos of MBS and Erdogan. One photo was taken while the Turkish president was not fully ready for the picture, and in a position that showed him looking subdued compared to a jubilant MBS.
Apart from that, despite its importance, some aspects of the visit seemed largely ceremonial. It represented announcing the dawn of reconciliation rather than moving relations to the next level. In short, the visit was concise.
The time between the welcoming ceremony of MBS and his departure from the airport was less than four hours, meaning there was not enough time to discuss substantial issues in-depth, let alone to discuss matters of common interest between the two countries’ delegations.
"Actions rather than statements in the coming period will help clarify whether a genuine will to overcome caution, strengthen bilateral ties, and move forward actually exists"
Moreover, issuing a joint statement instead of holding a joint press conference is rather a weak signal. While some might argue that the Saudi Crown Prince is not a fan of press conferences and does not have a track record of doing them, making an exception at this point following the Turkish gestures would have sent a strong message of resolve and commitment.
The statement itself was more of a general declaration of intent rather than an actual agreement on concrete issues or an action plan. Interestingly, only a few observers noted that there were two versions of the joint statement released within one hour of each other. After examining the two documents, revisions concerning four domains - economy, climate change, tourism, and foreign-regional policy – could be noted.
One added paragraph in the updated version indicated that “as members of the G20, the parties highlighted the tremendous economic potential of the two countries and the opportunities presented by the 2030 Vision of Saudi Arabia in the fields of investment, trade, tourism, development, industry, mining, construction projects, transportation-infrastructure (including construction contracting), agriculture, food safety, health, communication-information technology, media and sports, [with agreements] to enable the work of the Saudi-Turkish Coordination Council, to increase the level of cooperation and coordination in common areas of interest and to work on the exchange of experience between experts of the two countries".
An additional paragraph at the end of the statement emphasised that “the sovereignty of regional countries should not be violated”, as well as the need to find “political solutions to all crises in the region, and work to keep the region away from tensions and ensure regional security and stability”.
While most of the other changes are irrelevant and mostly related to wording, three critical differences between the initial statement and its updated version can be highlighted.
First, the updated version of the statement is devoid of reference to a paragraph referring to the 5th Ministerial Meeting Joint Statement of the Turkey-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) dated 13 October 2016, which emphasises the importance of Turkey-GCC Free Trade Agreement negotiations, a goal which Ankara has been strategically aiming to achieve it for years.
Second, while stressing the importance of cooperating in the field of tourism, the updated version of the statement deleted a sentence demanding an increase in the number of flights between the two countries. Third, and most importantly, the updated version of the joint statement omitted the signatures of the Saudi and Turkish foreign ministers from the last page. It is devoid of any signatures or official names at the end of the document.
While most can be attributed to last-minute arrangements, the nature of some of these modifications do not reflect strength, resolve, or confidence. On the contrary, they actually seem to reflect caution.
The updated version lacks official names or signatures, which might be a Saudi way to evade being officially committed to obligations that may not fit Riyadh’s preferences later. The Saudis have a track record of not following up on the agreements they sign. The fact that the joint statement itself called for reactivating previously signed agreements between the two countries in the field of defence is a strong indicator of this.
While the visit marks the normalisation of relations between the two countries, it does not represent a strong push towards moving them to the next level yet. Actions rather than statements in the coming period will help clarify whether a genuine will to overcome caution, strengthen bilateral ties, and move forward actually exists.
Ali Bakir is a research assistant Professor at Ibn Khaldon Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, a political risk analyst, and a consultant
Follow him on Twitter: @alibakeer
Eyüp Ersoy is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, King's College London
Follow him on Twitter: @eyupersoy