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The Significance of Mohammed bin Salman’s Trip to Turkey Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman | DoD photo

The Significance of Mohammed bin Salman’s Trip to Turkey

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By Giorgio Cafiero

On June 22, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) arrived in Turkey following visits to Egypt and Jordan. This was MbS’s first trip outside the Gulf in three years. After announcing that “we will welcome” the Saudi Crown Prince, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, “God willing we will have the opportunity to assess to what much higher level we can take Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations.”

With MbS in Ankara, Turkey and Saudi Arabia stressed that both countries share a determination to enter a “new period of cooperation” and improve the ease of bilateral trade while officials in Ankara invited Saudi investment funds to invest in startups in Turkey. A joint statement issued after Erdoğan and MbS talked referred to a potential currency swap, which could be extremely important to Turkey mindful of the country’s record high inflation and the lira’s depreciation since 2021. While the Crown Prince was in Turkey, Saudi Arabia thanked Ankara for supporting the Kingdom’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo.

This visit which MbS paid to Turkey will help this complicated bilateral relationship move past a painful and emotional rift following the barbaric murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 and other issues that fueled friction between the two countries since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. As one senior Turkish official explained, the Crown Prince’s visit to Turkey heralds “a new era” through “a full normalisation and a restoration of the pre-crisis period.”

Throughout 2022, the Turkish leadership has attempted to turn a new page with the Saudis. In April, a court in Istanbul suspended the trial in absentia of Saudi suspects accused of playing a role in Khashoggi’s murder and decided to transfer the case to the Kingdom. Then later that month, Erdoğan met with MbS for the first time following the Khashoggi killing during a visit that he paid the Crown Prince in Jeddah. Turkish and Saudi leaders have chosen to climb down from tall trees and allow realpolitik foreign policy decision-making to triumph over ideologically driven quests to challenge regional geopolitical competitors.

“After the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, President Erdoğan openly blamed the Crown Prince and started judicial proceedings against him in Turkey,” F. Gregory Gause III, a Saudi expert at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, said in an interview with the American Security Project (ASP). “[MbS’s] visit [to Turkey was] the final chapter of Erdoğan’s retreat from this position and his effort to get Saudi-Turkish relations back on a more normal basis.”

This reconciliation must be seen within the grander context of Ankara mending fences since 2021 with several Middle Eastern countries which were on bad terms with Turkey until recently. These also include Egypt, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For Turkey, the historic al-Ula summit of January 2021 opened the door to Ankara being able to maintain its close alliance with Qatar without having that relationship undermine its ability to also strengthen ties with the Arab states that blockaded Doha for three-and-a-half years.

Yet not all Turks agree with their government’s decision to welcome MbS to Ankara and turn a new page with Saudi Arabia. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition leader in Turkey, disapproved of Erdoğan’s decision to “embrace the man who ordered the killing [of Khashoggi].” On the day of the Crown Prince’s visit to Ankara, the Turkish polling firm called MetroPoll released its findings which indicated that less than 30 percent of the Turkish public has a positive outlook toward their country “getting closer” to Saudi Arabia with more than half of the respondents opposing this rapprochement with Riyadh.

Nonetheless, despite the controversial aspects of embracing MbS in the Turkish capital, there is much to say about how ending the political upheaval between the two countries can advance both Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s interests amid a period of serious economic challenges and geopolitical instability.

As Turks struggle with increasingly high living costs and inflation, which hit 73.5 percent last month, the leadership in Ankara seeks to improve Turkey’s ties with wealthy Gulf states. Mindful of the upcoming 2023 presidential election, luring more investment from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states is important to Erdoğan.

From Ankara’s perspective, better relations with regional heavy weights can help Turkey “when it comes to shared political goals, diplomatic engagements, economic relations, business, trade, tourism, energy, food security—all these issues and sectors are a top priority for Turkey in its relations with the primary regional players,” explained Ali Bakeer, an assistant professor at Qatar University’s Ibn Khaldon Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, in an interview with ASP. “Of course, Saudi Arabia is not excluded in this calculation.”

Turkish companies are eyeing opportunities to capitalize on their potential future roles in Saudi Arabia’s grandiose economic diversification agenda. “MbS is the de facto decision maker in Saudi Arabia [who] spearheads the political, economic, and cultural transformation program called Saudi Vision 2030,” Serhat S. Çubukçuoğlu, an Istanbul-based expert in Turkish foreign policy, told ASP. “It is an enormous opportunity for Turkish firms to enter, operate, and expand their presence in a lucrative market, which many people refer to as the ‘next Dubai.’”

At the same time, with Saudi Arabia becoming increasingly less confident in the U.S.’s ability to serve as an effective security guarantor for GCC members, Riyadh is seeking to diversity its alliances and partnerships while improving relations with other countries in the region such as Turkey. Also the Kingdom possibly seeks military technology from Ankara, specifically Turkish drones which have played major roles in armed conflicts in Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and the Western Sahara.

MbS’s visit to Ankara this month must be interpreted within the context of US President Joe Biden’s plans to travel next month to Saudi Arabia, where he’ll meet with MbS for the first time since entering the Oval Office. These diplomatic trips help one understand how MbS is managing to overcome many (though not all) of the political problems which he faced because of the Khashoggi affair. The Ukraine shock and this year’s instability in global energy markets have positioned the Saudi Crown Prince as a leader whom powerful states must engage.

“Both trips are part of the rehabilitation of MbS in international politics after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” explained Gause. “The turmoil in the oil markets, among other things, re-emphasizes Saudi Arabia’s regional and global importance. These trips are an acknowledgement of that fact by Turkey and the United States.”

In the current geopolitical environment in which Turkey and Western powers are coming to terms with the fact that MbS will become the next King of Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince can be expected to gain greater confidence and use his enhanced leverage on the international stage.

Amid growing East-West bifurcation and increased oil prices, new circumstances stemming from the Ukraine shock and terrible economic conditions have reminded officials in Ankara, Paris, Moscow, and Washington that the Kingdom is a heavyweight player in global affairs. In a rapidly evolving global environment defined by worsening geopolitical instability, powerful countries realize that they must coordinate their policies with Saudi Arabia. At the end of the day this means the unfortunate necessity of working with MbS.