Turkey, Saudi Arabia signal normalisation amid senior level meeting

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met with his Saudi Arabian counterpart Faisal bin Farhan al Saud on Friday, during an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Niger’s capital Niamey.

The meeting was a first between the two ministers since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and came a week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke on the phone with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud to discuss issues related to the G20 summit.

“A strong Turkey-Saudi Arabia partnership will be beneficial not just for our countries, but for the whole region,” Çavuşoğlu said in a tweet, calling his meeting with the Saudi minister “sincere.”

Turkey values its relations with Saudi Arabia, Çavuşoğlu said.

The two countries may enter a normalization period ahead of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden taking office in January, when he is expected to shift U.S. foreign policy significantly after four years of Donald Trump at the helm, said Ahmet Uysal, head of the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), in an interview with pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah.

Relations between Riyadh and Ankara have been strained since the death of the Saudi dissident journalist, and the kingdom has recently extended its unofficial boycott on Turkish goods.

Saudi authorities have called on the citizenry to “boycott everything Turkish,” and supermarket chains have joined in. In mid-November, the boycott spread to include animal products.

One of the ramifications of a Turkish-Saudi rapprochement would relate to the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar, especially as Turkey develops its relations with the Gulf country further.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt severed ties with Qatar in 2017, accusing Doha of supporting terrorist groups. Turkey and Qatar have signed dozens of military and economic cooperation deals since, with 10 more added earlier this week during Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s visit to the Turkish capital.

Qatar supports the U.N.-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, as does Turkey, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia have thrown their weight behind GNA’s rival Libyan National Army (LNA) in the bloody conflict in the north African country.

A normalisation in Turkish-Saudi relations would have a significant effect on the Libyan conflict, as well as the situation in Syria, where the UAE has strongly supported President Bashar al-Assad.

While it is too early to draw long term conclusions, a normalisation trend may become clearer as Biden’s policies towards Riyadh and Ankara get clearer, as well as Washington’s new outlook towards Tehran, Ali Bakeer of the Qatar University’s Ibn Khaldun Centre told Daily Sabah.

According to experts speaking to Daily Sabah, there are increasing signs for improvement on bilateral relations, especially as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s influence in the kingdom’s foreign policy is reduced without the boost from Trump.

Biden had called Erdoğan an autocrat, in a New York Times interview last year, and said the Turkish president would pay for what he had done to the Syrian Kurds, who were the main boots on the ground for the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State in the war-torn country.

Turkey has carried out several major military incursions into Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria since 2016, together with its Arab and Turkmen Syrian allies, saying the Syrian Kurdish groups in control along Turkey’s southern border were linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led an intermittent war against Turkey for almost  four decades.

One of the major points of friction with Washington is Ankara’s stance on Syria’s Kurds, namely the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the armed forces for the semi-autonomous zone they have carved out, the People’s Protection Units YPG). While PKK is on the terror list for the United States, PYD, YPG or the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) -the umbrella armed organisation in northern Syria- are not.

In an interview with the U.S. Institute of the Peace (USIP), Biden’s newly-appointed national security adviser Jake Sullivan has suggested Turkey be responsible for negotiating with Kurds on its own territory, referring to a possible renewal of the peace process with the PKK that collapsed in 2015. According to Sullivan, under such circumstances, the United States would continue working to separate the YPG from the PKK while encouraging Turkish-Kurdish talks.

The United States “should continue to work to try to show Turkey that going down the path it’s going down is going to start creating significant operational challenges, as well as political and diplomatic challenges,” Sullivan said in the same interview.

Erdoğan and his government have been following a hawkish approach to Turkey’s Kurdish citizens since the Kurdish political movement in the country challenged Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the June 2015 general elections, preventing the party from winning a supermajority in parliament for the first time since it came to power in 2002.

Meanwhile, the U.S. President-elect has been equally as harsh towards Riyadh, stating during a presidential debate last November that he would not sell weapons to Saudi Arabia under his presidency and treat the kingdom like “in fact the pariah that they are.”