In the latest of Turkey’s rapprochement efforts in its region, Turkish President Erdoğan paid a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia on 28-29 April. “We will be making efforts in order to start a new era of enhanced relations between our two countries in all respects, including politics, military, economy, and culture,” said Erdoğan before flying to Saudi Arabia. Turkish-Saudi relations soured following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood supported by Turkey in 2013 in Egypt, while Saudi Arabia has been one of the main sponsors of General Sisi. The bilateral relations went from bad to worse with Ankara’s unwavering support to Doha during the conflict between Qatar and its neighbors led by Saudi Arabia in 2017. The murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018 and the subsequent developments were the last straw that totally broke the political relations.
Turkey’s concession to hand the prosecution of Khashoggi’s murder over to the Saudi authorities in April paved the way for Erdoğan’s visit. Thus, the abandonment of Khashoggi’s trial effectively terminated Turkey’s most powerful tool to undermine and blackmail the reputation of the Saudi government. “We know the order to kill Khashoggi came from the highest levels of the Saudi government.” had inked Erdoğan in an op-ed at the Washington Post just after Khashoggi’s murder in 2018.” Besides pointing the finger at the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Erdoğan also made sure that the dreadful details of the murder found their way to headlines worldwide and did not let this murder go away in time. Turkey’s handling of the case at that time even led to some speculations that Erdoğan was trying to sideline the Crown Prince Mohammed not only in the Western capitals but also to undermine its prospects of becoming the next king of Saudi Arabia.
Since then, Crown Prince Mohammed was able to consolidate his grip on power and eliminate his potential rivals in Saudi Arabia, though Erdoğan’s campaign left its scars on the prince. The image of Crown Prince Mohammed as a progressive leader was permanently damaged given his human rights record. Some western companies did boycott high-level business meetings in Saudi Arabia, some political leaders shied away from shaking hands with the crown prince in public, such as in G-20 gatherings, or some refused to deal in person with Crown Prince Mohammed as President Biden did when he took office one year ago.
From the Saudis’ perspective, therefore, the most critical moment of this visit was not when King Salman received Erdoğan at Al-Salam Royal Palace in Jeddah. It was when Erdoğan shook hands and discussed bilateral issues in a one-on-one meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed as his rightful counterpart. In this way, the Saudis and President Erdoğan made it clear that Turkey fully acknowledged the legitimacy of Crown Prince Mohammed as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, and it has no objection to him as the next king of the country.
Turkey’s worsening economic crisis is the primary motive behind Erdogan’s endeavors to follow a new version of the zero problems policy with neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. The underestimating official inflation rate in Turkey soared to 60% in April, Turkey's lira lost 44% of its value in 2021, and the Turkish economy continues to suffer from a chronic current account deficit problem. Since the presidential election will be held next year, Erdoğan needs to shore up Turkey’s economic outlook and boost jobs. The war in Ukraine only worsens Turkey’s economic difficulties due to the higher cost of importing commodities such as oil and natural gas that it heavily depends on.
On the other hand, there is a close connection between Turkish-Saudi political ties and trade. Unlike Turkish-Israeli relations, where the trade volume continued to boom despite political problems, Turkish exports to Saudi Arabia took a hard hit when the leaders disagreed. Turkey’s exports to Saudi Arabia were $3,7 billion in 2012 when they enjoyed a friendly relationship. It started to slow down with increasing tensions between the two countries, and Turkish exports fell to $2,5 billion in 2019. As a result of an unofficial boycott of Turkish products in Saudi Arabia after that year, Turkish exports plummeted by 98% to only $189 million in 2021.
Turkey will undoubtedly reap the fruits of this visit. "I believe my visit will herald a new era in the ties between our two countries. We have demonstrated our common will to enhance ties," Erdoğan said on his flight back from Saudi Arabia to Turkey. In the upcoming period, it can be expected that Saudi Arabia will end the boycotting of Turkish products. Turkish companies will have a better chance to take part in the colossal infrastructure projects within the scope of Saudi Vision 2030. Saudis’ interest in Turkish armed drones, who are waging a dead-end war in Yemen, is also a known issue.
Saudi Arabia is the leading country in the Arab world. If Ankara can mend fences with Riyadh, it will definitely have a spillover effect on other Arab countries that follow the lead of Saudis vis-à-vis Turkey. Moreover, increasing commodity prices are forecast to provide more than $400 billion of revenue this year for Saudi Arabia. This means Riyadh has plenty to invest in Turkey if it chooses to do so. So Erdoğan is seeking deals and funding and a swap line for $10-$20 billion in Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, it is not sure if Saudi Arabia will flush Turkey with money to keep Erdoğan in power as it did for Sisi of Egypt. As one Saudi official put it: “[Erdoğan] needs us more than we need him, and he’s the one travelling to us. This stance of his has cost him billions in lost revenues. Any trade will be on our terms.”