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The process of divergence in Turkey and Saudi Arabia

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Farzad Ramezani Bonesh

Senior Researcher and Analyst of International Affairs

The beginning of the Turkish-Saudi goes to 1932. Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have had embassies and consulates in the opposite country. Both countries are members of joint organizations and institutions such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and have several platforms for enhancing relations.

At the beginning of the 21st century, bilateral relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia started to be strategic and political relations empowered after detailed meetings. However, the process of relations faced new developments and reached to the stage of divergence and confrontation. The following article examines the most important points of contention between the two countries in the divergence process.

The background of divergence in Turkey and Saudi Arabia relations

In fact, following the Justice and Development Party came to power in Turkey, emphasis was placed on increasing common and comprehensive relations with Saudi Arabia. Also both sides assured each other that cooperation between Ankara and Riyadh would be taken seriously. But what was evident in Turkish-Saudi relations was the expansion of relations between the two countries through economy and trade, and the dream of strategic relations didn’t come to the true.

Therefore, in order to evaluate and understand the general divergence in the relations between these two important players in the Middle East, we should look at variables such as the Arab Spring, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the United States, Israel, and the Gulf Cooperation Council. This process began during the Egyptian crisis. Although the developments in the Arab world have increased the scope of cooperation, it has increased the rival between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, from Riyadh’s point of view, the danger of Turkey becoming the first power in the region and the vast political and economical activities of Ankara in the Arab countries’ crisis was more tangible. From this point of view, the danger of creating a Turkish-centered Arab bloc would weakened Saudi Arabia’s role and increased the risk of the Ottomans returning to the Arab world. This made Ankara play a disruptive role in the face of Riyadh’s role as leader of the Arab world.

In addition, in the past decade, the Saudis have expected Turkey to take a tougher stance toward Iran’s role and the country’s nuclear program, but Turkey’s interests and approaches were different.

The Syrian crisis and the divergence of allies

Although alignments took place between Turkey and Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the Syrian crisis, it became clear that ideological and geopolitical interests of the two countries were different. Thus, differences of opinion on Iran’s and the Kurds’ role in Syria, the US attempt to withdraw from northern Syria, Saudi Arabia’s view of the Kurds and the PKK, Saudi Arabia’s dissatisfaction with Turkey’s cooperation with US coalition forces, Riyadh’s approach to Turkey’s military attack on northern Syria And so on, forced the two countries to distance from each other became at odds in some areas in Syria’s matter.

Turkey’s coup and competition in Palestine

Failed coup in Turkey exposed a kind of skepticism and discord in relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In fact, some in Turkey believe that Saudi Arabia has taken dangerous steps to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party of Turkey by supporting the coup plotters and establishing ties with the Fatullah Gulen group.

On the other hand, the Erdogan government’s efforts to gain a foothold in the important Palestinian issue have been intensified over the past decade, and have even made Turkey’s role in the Palestinian public opinion appropriate. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused some Arab countries of “betrayal” of Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.

The Qatar crisis and the Ankara-Riyadh conflict

During the Qatar crisis and putting the country under the siege by the Gulf Cooperation Council, Riyadh expected Doha to be forced to surrender. But Turkey, with swift support of Qatar, opposing to13 Arab conditions for Qatar, Ankara-Doha military agreement, the presence of thousands of Turkish troops in Qatar, sending food and vital goods to Qatar, further moved the Riyadh-Ankara relations to diversion.

Increasing of competition and try to limit each other’s regional influence

Some in Turkey believe that there are orders from Riyadh to implement a strategic plan to counter the Turkish government, put pressure on Erdogan and weaken him by targeting the Turkish economy, gradually end Saudi investment in Turkey, reduce Saudi tourists, and reduce imports of Turkish goods.

In the other dimension, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are competing for increasing their influence and strategic power in the Middle East. Turkey continues to support the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia sees it as a threat. Meanwhile, although Hassan al-Bashir was ousted from power in Sudan, Turkey is trying to maintain al-Bashir’s position in the face of pro-Saudi generals and military leaders.

Also in Libya, the Fayez al-Sarraj government hopes to get Turkey’s support against Haftar (supported by Riyadh) by signing military, security and border agreements with Erdogan. In addition, Turkey has been seeking for growing its influence in Africa over the past decade. Meanwhile, Riyadh does not tolerate the establishing of a Turkish military base in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and also Turkey’s presence in the Red Sea (near Saudi Arabia).

In the other dimension, Turkey faces competition from Saudi Arabia and the risk of further cooperation between Cyprus, Greece and the Saudi Arabia in the Mediterranean and in the region’s oil and gas resources. In addition, the Saudi foreign minister’s first visit to Cyprus since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting with the Greek Prime Minister in Riyadh and the development of their ties and further military cooperation between them has worried Turkey.

In fact, Saudi Arabia seems to be consciously trying to stand up to Turkey’s approach in the Arab world, and to counter Ankara in the polarizations and international blockades of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Khashoggi’s case in Turkey

In fact, the case of Jamal Khashoggi’s death in Istanbul has now entered a new phase. Turkish officials believe that Khashoggi ‘s trial should be held in Turkey because of the crime has been occurred in the country, and they do not accept the verdict of the Saudi court. But Saudi Arabia has previously called on Turkey to hand over all aspects of the case to Riyadh, emphasizes that Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen who was killed in Saudi’s consulate in.

Efforts to reduce Turkey’s soft power in the Arab world

Turkey’s soft power among the Arabs has been strengthened over the past decade, and the country is trying to expand its influence in the Arab world and at least establish its cultural authority in the Ottoman historical influence sphere. But Saudi efforts to neutralize the popularity of Turkish culture are continuing.

It seems that Saudi Arabia has tried to manage the feelings of Saudi and Arab citizens towards Turkey and to reduce Erdogan’s popularity among the young people in Arab countries by adjusting the methods and educational resources in order to fight against the effects of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Saudi educational system, blocking Turkish websites, expressing the conflicts between Arab governments and the Ottoman Empire.

Reducing the level of economic relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey

In the past decade, trade between the two countries has increased and the two countries have seen an increase in investment in the other country. In addition, Turkey has tried to make good use of Saudi Arabia’s vast financial resources, but since the Qatar crisis, there has been a significant decline in trade between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and its investment in Turkey. This has undermined Turkey’s efforts to strengthen economic ties with other Arab countries. In addition, rising tensions between Ankara and Riyadh have led to a ban on Saudi citizens traveling to Turkey, a reduction in the number of Saudi tourists and investment, warning to Saudi citizens about buying property in Turkey, and so on.

The future of Turkish-Saudi relations

The current relationship between Ankara and Riyadh is a growing regional rivalry. In fact, access to Turkey’s Vision Document (2023) requires a less stressful environment. Therefore, from Ankara’s point of view, despite the divergences in relations with Riyadh, it is possible to review the relations between the two countries, and cultural and social contexts, as well as common experiences, can improve relations.

However, it should be noted that variables such as the need for economic cooperation, relations with the United States and the West, the type of relations with Iran, developments in Syria, the possibility of improving Qatar’s relations with Saudi Arabia, the possibility of peace in Yemen, etc. can be decisive can determine the future orientation in Turkish-Saudi relations.


Farzad Ramezani Bonesh is a writer, senior researcher and analyst on regional issues, especially in the Middle East and South Asia. He has previously served as chief editor of research desk at several Iranian research centers. He has written hundreds of research articles, short analysis and journalism in Persian and English. He has had many interviews with Iranian and international media such as Aljazeera , RT Arabic, Al Arabi and others.