Analysis |

Warming Turkey-Saudi Relations Force Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood to Shift Tactics

War in Ukraine has helped Erdogan rehabilitate sullied relations with Washington, along with renewed ties with Gulf states – but the reopening channels don't contradict his strategic ‘Turkey First’ philosophy

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman and Turkish President Erdogan in Jeddah, last week.
Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman and Turkish President Erdogan in Jeddah, last week.Credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Was it King Salman who invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for an official visit to Saudi Arabia, or did Erdogan invite himself? This question has kept Saudis busy on social media this week – more than Erdogan’s two-day visit a week ago to the port city of Jeddah did.

The difference between the two versions touches on matters of respect and prestige. After all, if Erdogan initiated the visit, then it is his Pilgrimage to Canossa, but if the Saudi kingdom is behind the visit, we’re talking about two countries of equal status reporting on the end of the four-year conflict between them.

In the end, Saudi Arabia released a statement saying King Salman invited Erdogan, and in doing so supposedly put an end to the various interpretations. Supposedly because the welcoming reception at the Jeddah airport did not include Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but instead the governor of Mecca, Khalid bin Faisal al-Saud. The governor, a distinguished prince in his own right and an adviser to the king, was the Saudi go-between conducting the negotiations in 2018 on ending the affair surrounding the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi quietly and in mutual agreement. The negotiations ended in failure when Erdogan rejected his proposals, but the mutual embrace last week, first with Faisal and later with Prince Mohammed, buried Khashoggi once and for all.

The reconciliation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia has a price tag, however. Turkey agreed to transfer to the Saudis the continuation of the trials against 26 people suspected with involvement in the Khashoggi murder – and by doing so to lower, in practice, the curtain on the entire affair. No less important was Erdogan’s statement on Twitter that Turkey opposes any form of terrorism and gives great importance to regional cooperation against terrorism. This was not just some banal statement of the type that rulers make offhandedly. It was directed quite specifically against the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudis have designated a terrorist organization.

On his return to Turkey, Erdogan ordered the closure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s al-Mekameleen television station, and made it clear to its senior executives, who until now enjoyed government patronage, that the “diplomatic circumstances have changed” – in other words, that they can continue to be guests in Turkey, but can no longer be involved in diplomatic or political activities or use their media outlets for such activities.

A policewoman against the backdrop of a photo of journalist Jamal Kashoggi near the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in 2019.Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

This is Erdogan’s answer not just to Saudi Arabia but also to Egypt, which demanded that Turkey extradite the senior leaders of the Brotherhood as one of the conditions for renewing relations. At the same time, and in order to satisfy Israel, it was reported that Erdogan made it clear to Hamas that the members of its Izz al-Din al-Qassam military wing could not remain in Turkey. According to Palestinian sources, Turkey has already expelled a few dozen Hamas activists from the country.

Before the Khashoggi affair, Turkey and Saudi Arabia maintained even close relations. When Salman was appointed king in 2015, Erdogan was one of the first to congratulate him, and even attended the coronation ceremony. A year later, a strategic cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries, in which a joint center for economic and diplomatic cooperation was established. This was an especially important achievement for Erdogan, in light of the great rivalry and the break in relations between Egypt, an ally of Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, which saw Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi as nothing more than a general who seized control of the government in an illegitimate military coup in 2011.

But since then, a number of the sandstorms have blown in the deserts of the Gulf and have covered Turkey and turned into a country non grata, hostile, threatening and dangerous as defined by the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. When Riyadh, along with Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Egypt launched the harsh economic boycott on Qatar in 2017, it was Turkey that rushed to rescue Qatar from its isolation. A Turkish aerial supply convoy was flown via Iran to Doha, the capital of Qatar and later cooperated with Qatar in the war in Libya against the separatist general Khalifa Haftar. Turkey and Qatar stood with the recognized government, while Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt backed and aided Haftar militarily. In 2018, Khashoggi's death – his body dismembered by Crown Prince Mohammed’s agents in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – exploded as an event. Since then, no reconciliation between the countries seemed possible.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Mecca, last week.Credit: AFP

Still, conflicts between nations have regular characteristics – their impetus and power fade when a more important interest arises than the one keeping the flames going. This is how the centrifugal force that pushed Saudi Arabia away from Turkey is also what in the end brought them back together. While Saudi Arabia has become a leper country for the U.S. administration and European countries because of Khashoggi's murder, Turkey developed into a strategic threat to NATO because of its purchase of Russian-made S-400 antiaircraft missiles. Even former U.S. President Donald Trump, Erdogan’s friend and savior, was forced in 2020 to impose sanctions on Turkey, remove it from the development and procurement project for the F-35 aircraft, and to impose restrictions on the heads of its military industries.

This came while Ankara had already begun its economic deterioration, which reached an unprecedented low last year with the massive help of the coronavirus pandemic. The election of Joe Biden as president was one more blow to Erdogan and his luxurious presidential palace. Biden has not hidden his disgust for the Turkish president, and a long time will pass before Biden agrees to even have a phone call with Erdogan. Erdogan’s only consolation is that no such conversation has happened yet between Biden and Prince Mohammed to this day, either.

But Biden’s Middle East policy, which has espoused human rights along with the desire to withdraw from this conflicted and bloody region that has been such a blow to the United States and its status, is also what renewed the glue that kept the rival countries together.

U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington, this week.Credit: SAUL LOEB - AFP

The Emirates was the first, excepting Qatar, to break through the wall of isolation when it renewed its diplomatic relations with Turkey and pulled $10 billion out of its wallet as a guaranteed investment there, in addition to the $5 billion in a currency exchange deal. At the same time, Turkey is conducting high level negotiations with Egypt with the goal of restoring diplomatic relations and ending the conflict, and with Israel too – where this month Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is scheduled to make his first visit – and now Erdogan’s official visit to Saudi Arabia.

A precious gift

This work of restoring relations began even before the war in Ukraine, and was born out of a Turkish policy to open regional investment and financing channels as the basis of a solution to the deep Turkish economic crisis – which saw the Turkish lira lose 40 percent of its value and sent inflation rocketing to over 61 percent. It seems that the stars have aligned for Saudi Arabia too, which recognized that its sullied relations with Washington require to look for alternatives and create new regional alliances.

It is not only Turkey that has been moved from the list of undesirable countries to the column of countries that can be reevaluated – even with Iran's negotiations with Riyadh that have been ongoing for some time with the goal of reaching understandings that will restore relations that were cut in 2016. Saudi Arabia has traditionally preferred to act within blocs or coalitions that it can maneuver as it wishes, in the past having relied on its economic power and the strong foundation it built over decades with Washington. This is how it established the Arab coalition for the war in Yemen and the anti-Iranian bloc. But after Washington stopped being the steadfast support and the loyal scourge that aided the kingdom, and in the face of the possibility that Iran will return to the international arena – Saudi Arabia began examining options like cooperation with Russia and China, building a bloc with Turkey, and maybe even with Iran later.

In comparison, Erdogan’s Turkey has usually been a solo act. Erdogan paid no attention to the European Union’s threats when he was asked to improve the humans rights situation in Turkey, he completed the Russian S-400 antiaircraft missile deal against Trump’s demands, he sent drilling ships to areas of the Mediterranean Sea where Greece and Cyprus have claims of ownership, he aided Azerbaijan in its war against Armenia in Nagorno Karabakh, and in doing so put itself on a collision course with Russia – in short, Turkey is acting as if it was a superpower that does not need partners, while Saudi Arabia was busying itself with those who would support its position. The restoration of relations with the Gulf states does not contradict Turkey’s strategic policy. “Turkey First” will continue to serve as its guiding principle.

The war in Ukraine has provided Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the oil nations with a precious gift. Not only have the prices of natural gas and oil enriched their coffers in a dramatic and unexpected way, these countries have become the essential leadership on which the sanctions against Russia are based. Suddenly Biden is trying to talk with Crown Prince Mohammed to convince him to increase oil production and reduce the world price for it, and this time it is Prince Mohammed, who had been excommunicated, refusing to take the call.

A demonstration against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Istanbul, last month.Credit: MURAD SEZER/Reuters

Turkey too, which may not be an oil or gas producer, now finds itself sought after despite being a NATO member and obligated by the anti-Russian policy of the organization. Turkey is still refusing, for now, to join in the sanctions imposed on Russia. To ensure its adherence to Biden's anti-Russian policy, it seems that even the anti-aircraft missile procurement affair will no longer be an obstacle to restoring relations with the White House.

Turkey wants to purchase 40 F-15s and another 80 kits to upgrade older planes, at a cost of $6 billion. Before the war in Ukraine, it was made clear to Turkey that this request was expected to be put far into the deep freeze. But recently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked to speed up approval of the deal and Democratic members of Congress who in the past said emphatically that they would oppose such a sale of aircraft are singing a new tune.

As Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, made clear: “We need a relationship with Turkey; we need to find some way to build that back.”

Building relations, like any other construction, is not done for free, and as mentioned, conflicts will always bow their heads in the face of interests.

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