What’s behind Turkey’s new charm offensive in the Middle East?
9 May 2022|

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has embarked on what he calls ‘a new era in foreign policy’. He has lately made strenuous efforts to mend relations with a few Middle Eastern countries with which he has been at odds for some years. One of those states is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. What has motivated him in this direction?

Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia have been strained for most of Erdogan’s nearly two decades in power. Although the two countries share a common allegiance to the Sunni sect of Islam and Western-oriented foreign policy postures, their histories, national identities and geopolitical dispositions have led them to be wary of each other more often than not.

Erdogan’s early attempts, especially during his prime ministership (2003–2014), to expand Turkey’s role in the Middle East caused concern for many of its regional neighbours. Saudi Arabia and its fellow Arab states, including those in the Gulf Cooperation Council, except for Qatar, perceived the Turkish leader’s move as part of a foreign policy offensive to revive the Ottoman empire, which once ruled most of the Arab domain, and to capture the leadership of Sunni Islam, which Riyadh has always sought to champion.

The crunch came in a downward spiralling of relations after the brutal killing by Saudi agents of dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The event shocked the world, and Erdogan accused the ‘highest levels’ of the Saudi government of ordering the gruesome assassination. Erdogan pointed his finger at the controversial Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammad bin Salman. Riyadh’s denial and assertion that it was carried out by ‘rogue’ Saudi elements didn’t ring true with Ankara or, for that matter, many Western sources, including US intelligence findings that President Joe Biden released in early 2021.

However, after months of turning to a rapprochement, involving Ankara dropping its request for the trial of Khashoggi’s killers in Turkey, Erdogan made a two-day official visit to the kingdom in late April, where he held talks with not only King Salman bin Abdulaziz, but also his son, Mohammad bin Salman. Upon his return, in an appraisal of his visit, Erdogan said, ‘We agreed with Saudi Arabia to reactivate a great economic potential through organisations that will bring our investors together.’ Although no specific projects were announced, the Turkish leader declared his support for the kingdom’s bid to host Expo 2030 in Riyadh and for the acceleration of economic, trade and investment relations as important for regional cooperation, peace and security.

Erdogan’s charm offensive to improve relations with Riyadh comes in the wake of similar efforts with the United Arab Emirates and Israel. He has also said that he would like to see a turn in relations with Cairo. Ankara–Cairo ties were soured over Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s government that electorally came to power following the Egyptian pro-democracy uprisings but was deposed by general-cum-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013. They have also been affected by the two sides backing rival groups in the long-running power struggle in Libya.

Three factors seem to be at work in motivating Erdogan. The first is that Turkey is faced with a dire economic situation, marked by soaring inflation, declining currency value and investment, and growing unemployment. Any inflow of cash and investment from the wealthy, oil-rich Saudi Arabia and some of its equally rich Arab partners could help alleviate some of Turkey’s economic troubles.

The second is that Erdogan faces an election next year amid increased opposition to his rule at home. Although he still enjoys considerable support from his ruling Justice and Development Party, he no longer maintains the popularity that he once enjoyed before his very heavy-handed crackdown on the opposition in the wake of the failed 2016 coup against him.

The third factor is the war in Ukraine. Erdogan’s friendship of the last many years with Russian leader Vladimir Putin has come under question since the invasion, and he also has maintained close ties with Kyiv.

Erdogan has good reason for turning to the Middle East to improve strained ties, as he has also mellowed his criticism of Turkey’s US-led NATO allies. Whether this is likely to help his chances for re-election remains to be seen. But he should never be underestimated.