How can new Saudi-Turkey ties impact the Middle East?

Turkey and Saudi Arabia, embroiled in a political crisis over the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, are now taking steps to warm relations.

Efforts to revive bilateral ties might have a positive impact on regional security and stability when also considering Turkey’s moves to reconcile with the United Arab Emirates and Israel, said analyst Seth Frantzman. 

Turkey was acting aggressively towards other regional powers during the tenure of former U.S. President Donald Trump, but that has now changed under his successor, Frantzman said in the Jerusalem Post on Sunday.

“With (U.S. President Joe) Biden in power, Ankara is trying to go back to the former policy of zero problems with its neighbours,” he said.

A full reproduction of the article follows below:

Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two key countries in the region, are seeking to renew ties. The presidential visit from Turkey went well last week, and Ankara is keen to speak about new brotherly ties.

This is a big change from the last half-decade when the countries appeared to be rivals. In fact, Turkey appeared to be trying to angle to more control over global Islamic sensibilities, championing causes in places such as Kashmir and hosting groups like Hamas. Riyadh, in contrast, was moderating.

Both Ankara and Riyadh have faced tensions with the United States and some Western countries in recent years.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said there are many options on the table for the countries to increase “kinds of political, military and economic relations between us and to start a new era.”

Turkish media also have highlighted a variety of issues involved.

“Increased cooperation with Saudi Arabia in health, energy, food security, agricultural technologies, the defence industry and finance is in the common interest, said Erdoğan, adding the two countries have serious cooperation potential in renewable and clean energy technologies,” the pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah reported.

Turkey attaches great importance to the security and stability of the Gulf region, Erdoğan said.

“We express on every occasion that we attach as much importance to the stability and security of our brothers in the Gulf region as our own,” he was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, in the UAE, senior Emirati official Dr. Anwar Gargash said these were positive steps. The UAE and Saudis have generally had closely linked policies in the region. Riyadh appeared to support the Abraham Accords, especially Bahrain joining the peace deals with Israel. The UAE sometimes does not precisely share the same interests as Riyadh, as in Yemen.

The region would benefit from the new relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Gargash said, adding that he expects to see better communication and rapprochement.

“The visits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the UAE and sisterly Saudi Arabia, and the adoption of the approach of communication and rapprochement, is a positive step for the benefit of the region as a whole,” the National news site quoted Gargash as saying.

Now, everyone seems to be talking about “stability.”

Turkey has said it supports the “security and stability of Saudi Arabia,” Turkey’s (state-run) Anadolu Agency quoted Erdoğan as saying. This comes after he visited the UAE in February as well as recently.

Turkey has been on a kind of “reconciliation” tour in the region. Ankara also hosted (Israeli) President Isaac Herzog recently. All this shows Turkey wants to reconcile after years of threatening these countries.

But that leads to a question: Why didn’t Ankara simply not harm relations with all these countries in the first place?

Turkey was on an aggressive binge during the Trump years and is now shifting to reconciliation. It appears Ankara believed it had a blank check from the Trump administration to harass and seek to intimidate and threaten Israel, Greece, Armenia, the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries. With Biden in power, Ankara is trying to go back to the former policy of “zero problems with our neighbours.”

That’s not the only thing taking place though. Saudi Arabia’s seven-year intervention in Yemen has also been difficult. Iran has mobilised the Houthis to attack not only Saudi Arabia but also the UAE.

Iran is also mobilising militias in Iraq. Those militias threaten Turkish bases in Iraq. Over the weekend, a rocket was fired at U.S. forces at a facility at Ain al-Assad base.

What this means is that the Gulf states understand they want stability. Turkey can help by changing its support from extremists to supporting other groups. Perhaps, Ankara can tone down rhetoric and policies regarding Libya, the eastern Mediterranean and also end its collaboration with Iran.

It’s not clear what Turkey might do next. Ankara is in a difficult place because it is buying Russia’s S-400 system and also supplies Ukraine with Bayraktar drones.

An article at Al-Ain media in the UAE said the UAE was pushing for stabilisation in the region. Gargash said the recent meetings of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the Armed Forces, came with the aim of stabilising the region. This is important because the UAE is a key partner of Israel.

Trade is booming and Israel and the UAE share many interests. However, the tensions in Jerusalem could have spilled over during Ramadan to worse clashes. The UAE was involved in hosting foreign visits during Ramadan, and Gargash said this helped pave the way for more stability. Meetings included discussions with Yemen and Pakistan.

Gargash “pointed out that this comes in the belief that the key to security and prosperity is in the hands of the countries of the region. In their cooperation and joint action lies the success, prosperity and progress of their peoples,” the report said.

Indeed, as the United States and the West are concentrating on Ukraine, it is up to the powers of the region to try to manage affairs closer to home. The files involved include Yemen, but they may also include discussions about Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and other places.

There are many things happening in the Middle East, even though many of the recent conflicts appear to be winding down. Iran’s lack of obtaining a nuclear deal could also lead Tehran to lash out against the United States. The rocket attack in Iraq could be another warning sign.

UAE relations with Pakistan also matter. Pakistani leader Imran Khan was recently pushed out of power, leaving a potential vacuum. An attack by Baloch militants against Chinese residents in Pakistan does not bode well. Neither does the rise of attacks on Shi’ites in Afghanistan.

All of this illustrates that these countries have major stakes from Pakistan to Yemen and that the recent movies by Turkey, the UAE and Saudi Arabia will have long-term repercussions.

There is an added issue involving Israel here because Jerusalem is improving ties with the Gulf and Morocco. However, it remains to be seen if Turkey-Israel reconciliation will be cemented.

This is the same question that will be asked about Ankara’s ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Symbolic visits are important, but will there be a follow-up?

(The original version of the article can be found here.)

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