Erdogan’s Saudi visit affirms shift in relations

Analysts and officials say Saudi funding could help boost Turkey's ailing economy as Turkish President travels to Saudi Arabia on a two-day trip

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, prior to their meeting in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on July, 23, 2017. (Presidency Press Service/Pool Photo via AP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads to Saudi Arabia Thursday for a two-day visit aimed at easing old tensions between Ankara and Riyadh.

The Turkish leader’s visit with the Saudi king comes after years of rivalry between their once-close countries.

Mehmet Ogutcu is the head of the London Energy Club, a grouping of government and energy sector leaders. Ogutcu says the visit is the culmination of intense international diplomacy.

“President Erdogan has good relations with the king; with the crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman, we had serious difficulties,” said Ogutcu. “Now it looks that I believe the*(Britons), and Americans, and the Qataris of course played some role, even the Azeris might have done this. And things are changing and relaxing a bit more, and now at the presidential level, it’s going to be sealed.”

Erdogan and the crown prince have been bitter rivals. The Turkish president led international condemnation over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.

The killing was linked to the crown prince, a charge he denied. But the decision earlier this month to move the Khashoggi murder trial from Istanbul to Riyadh is seen as a gesture by Ankara, opening the way for Erdogan’s visit.

Ogutcu says with presidential elections due next year, Erdogan is looking for Saudi help to bail out the ailing Turkish economy.

“Turkey has an interest in reviving relations with Riyadh because Turkey needs financial support,” said Ogutcu. “The Turkish economy is not attracting any significant portfolio investments nor sovereign wealth funds coming to invest Turkey. But this will be a give-and-take package deal involving these countries. So, there are real economic and political security interests involved.”

Shared concerns over Iran’s growing influence in the region — along with its nuclear energy program — provide important common ground between Riyadh and Ankara, says international relations professor Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, especially as American attention is expected to pivot away from the Middle East and toward China.

“Turkey does propose itself as a counterweight to Iran. Both countries have an interest along with all the western countries for Iran not to be as influential throughout the region as it is today,” said Ozel. “And the Iranians are also constantly sending signals that they are not going to let others draw them away from those countries – Iraq, Lebanon and Syria – where they have quite a lot of influence.”

Erdogan’s Saudi visit is part of a wider policy of seeking to repair relations across the region in a bid to end its isolation. The Turkish president has recently visited the United Arab Emirates and earlier this month hosted the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog.

But analyst Ozel warns Ankara is in a vulnerable position.

“Turkey alienated, insulted, offended a lot of countries with which it had at least decent relations. And they all recognize that this burst of diplomacy is coming out of weakness rather than strength,” said Ozel.

But analysts say Ankara is banking on its importance as a potential bulwark to Iranian ambitions, a factor that may help overcome any remaining hostility among the neighbors it is trying to win back.

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