Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Turkey this week for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish state media highlighted "new agreements on tourism, trade, construction and defense" that it said were expected to be on the agenda. Media in the Gulf said the two important regional states were beginning a "new era of cooperation." This is a big deal, because after several years in which Ankara was openly anti-Saudi Arabia, it seems to be working on reconciliation.
This isn't the first time Ankara has done this. It has also patched things up with the United Arab Emirates, and is talking more often with Israel. This new era is symbolized by important visits. President Isaac Herzog has been to Turkey, for instance, and the Turkish leader went to the UAE.
Prior to 2021, Turkey had isolated itself in the region, making threats against Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Saudi, the UAE, Israel and other countries. Turkey's ruling AKP Party also spent more time hosting Hamas leaders than actually conducting normal foreign policy. This was a departure from the earlier posture of "zero problems" in which Turkey sought to be a regional leader. Ankara became more extreme and backed extremists in Syria, including ethnic cleansing of minorities.
Ankara was also encouraged in its policies by the Trump administration. It had key allies within that administration. Those allies helped encourage Turkey to attack other countries, and told Ankara that it would get support. When Joe Biden won the US presidency in 2020, Turkey was worried. It saw it was losing support in the West. Even though it funded think tanks and lobbyists, it was worried.
As a result, the country changed tack and began to court pro-Israel voices again. Through these voices, it believed it could use pro-Israel influence to get friends in Congress. But it has not been entirely successful.
Now Ankara has moved toward more regional diplomatic efforts. It wants funding from Saudi Arabia and the UAE for its faltering economy. It also wants to work with Russia. Turkey tries to have good relations with Ukraine and Russia, but it is Russia that it believes is a key to its operations in Syria.
Ankara also wants to sell a new invasion of Syria to its people, in order to expel Syrian refugees to areas where Kurds live in Syria, and ethnically cleanse the Kurds, replacing them with Turkish-backed extremist groups.
Ankara has also tried to become a leader of the Islamic world, working with Malaysia and Pakistan, as well as Iran, to sell itself as a key Islamic country. Ankara's AKP is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood and it has a vision for the region. That vision has included Qatar, a key ally of Ankara, which also backs extremists.
Turkey knows it needs more friends, and is trying to sell reconciliation with Riyadh as part of this. It is unclear who the main beneficiary might be in these new ties. It could be Riyadh or Ankara. Both countries have a complex relationship with the US and also with Israel. This means that if they work together, it could increase regional stability, but the relationship must be managed carefully.
Ankara has a tendency toward obfuscation and lying to countries. It pretends to want to reconcile, but the key officials around Erdogan are all Islamists who have a hard time controlling their real views. Also, Ankara empowered anti-Israel and anti-Saudi voices around the world over the last several years. Will it be able to tone down the rhetoric?
Will Turkey tone down the rhetoric?
According to reports, the Saudi crown prince and Turkey's leader discussed "their common determination to enhance cooperation in the bilateral relations between the two countries including in the political, economic, military, security and cultural fields." They also "expressed their aspiration to cooperate in the fields of energy, including petroleum, refining and petrochemicals, energy efficiency, electricity, renewable energy, innovation and clean technologies for hydrocarbon resources, low-carbon fuels and hydrogen, and to work on localizing energy sector products and associated supply chains, and developing projects related to these fields," Saudi's SPA reported. "The two parties affirmed their endeavor to intensify cooperation, coordination and exchanging of views on important issues in the regional and international arenas, in a way that contributes to supporting and strengthening security and stability in the region and support for political solutions to all crises in the countries of the region."
Bin Salman left Ankara on Wednesday and is now traveling to Egypt and Jordan. This is important because Egypt and Jordan are key allies of Riyadh. Also, both Egypt and Jordan are part of a new energy deal with Syria and Lebanon. That means Saudi Arabia is now meeting with key regional countries that matter for security. These two countries also have peace with Israel. Saudi Arabia and Israel are expecting to host Biden, and toward that end, this trip makes the utmost sense, as Riyadh is seen as having developed closer ties to Israel in the last several years since the Abraham Accords.
Optics matter. The images of the two leaders meeting are important for the region. Turkey's pro-government media also praised the meeting. Anadolu reported that "Ankara and Riyadh decided to deepen consultation and cooperation on the regional issues to strengthen stability and peace." The two leaders are talking about their "historical brotherhood."
Now there may be new trade opportunities and investment, which is what Turkey wants most of all. The issue of "concrete" partnerships was also discussed. This would mean that there might be more than lip service to the new ties.
"Saudi Arabia expressed gratitude for Turkey's support for Riyadh's candidacy to host EXPO 2030," according to the Turkish-Saudi joint declaration. The report also noted that "in late April, Erdogan paid a two-day working visit to Saudi Arabia aimed at boosting bilateral ties. During his visit, Erdogan met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, as well as the crown prince, and discussed various international, regional, and bilateral issues."
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.