May 12, 2022

IntelBrief: Erdogan and MBS Mend Fences in Landmark Visit

Turkish Presidency via AP

Bottom Line up Front

  • The late April visit of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Saudi Arabia eased bilateral tensions, including those related to the 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
  • Erdogan is trying to end his regional isolation and improve Turkey’s economy ahead of national elections in 2023.
  • Erdogan did not receive any firm commitments from Saudi de-facto leader Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) to end a trade embargo or help stabilize Turkey’s currency.
  • MBS’ hosting of Erdogan signals admiration for Turkish defense capabilities and an intent to recruit Turkey as an ally against Tehran.

On April 28, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Saudi Arabia to meet with controversial de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), a landmark visit signaling that the two leaders had decided to rebuild relations after a long period of rivalry. Erdogan’s visit was his first since 2017 and included a pilgrimage to Mecca, as well as a mostly ceremonial meeting with MBS’ father, the ailing King Salman. The trip culminated months of gradual rapprochement during which the two countries’ foreign ministers met and Saudi Arabia slightly loosened a ban on imports of Turkish goods that was imposed in 2020. Erdogan’s February visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a close Saudi ally, signaled that a Saudi-Turkey warming was imminent—if Turkey could put aside the 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence has publicly placed that assassination at the feet of MBS. The early April ruling by a Turkish court that the trial of 26 individuals suspected in relation to Khashoggi’s murder be transferred to Saudi Arabia cleared the way for the Erdogan visit to proceed. Saudi courts are widely considered unlikely to harshly punish the suspects, and the Turkish court decision has been widely assailed by human rights groups and Khashoggi's fiance.

For MBS, the Erdogan visit helps resurrect his stature in the region after numerous missteps that have seriously damaged his relations not only with other regional leaders but also with U.S. and allied officials. MBS was the architect of major blunders and offenses that include not only the Khashoggi killing, but also the 2015 Saudi/UAE intervention in Yemen, the 2017 blockade of fellow Gulf state Qatar, and the 2017 detention of Lebanon’s then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri, among others. In addition to helping MBS rebuild his regional reputation, the Erdogan trip could yield tangible strategic benefits for the Kingdom. In contrast to 2017, when Saudi Arabia demanded that Qatar expel Turkish forces from the country, MBS and his UAE ally, de-facto leader Mohammad bin Zayid Al Nahyan (MBZ), now see Ankara as a potential ally in their efforts to counter the burgeoning strategic capabilities of Iran. Both Gulf leaders have come to doubt the durability of the U.S. commitment to the security of the Gulf, and they seek to recruit new regional allies. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia wants Erdogan to help persuade Tehran to turn a two-month ceasefire into a settlement between the Saudi/UAE-backed government of Yemen and the Iran-backed Houthi movement. In addition, MBS and his aides are increasingly impressed with Turkish military technology. The Turkish-produced Bayraktar (TB-2) armed drone has proven pivotal on recent battlefields in the Caucasus and in Ukraine, and the system could potentially prove useful to the Kingdom if it were to buy the weapon.

For Erdogan, the Saudi welcome advanced his diplomatic goals, even if he and MBS failed to reconcile their competing visions for the future of the region. Politically, Turkey has been relatively isolated in the region, in no small part because of Saudi and Emirati challenges to Turkey’s support for regional Islamist movements in Libya, Syria, Egypt, and the Gaza Strip. For more than a year, Erdogan has sought to end that isolation by engaging with leaders who do not share his vision for the region, including MBZ and Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Suggesting his satisfaction that the visit to the Kingdom furthered Turkey’s regional integration, Erdogan stated, after leaving the Kingdom, "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."

Less clear is whether Erdogan accomplished his central objective for the visit: to enlist Saudi help on economic issues that Erdogan needs to address if he is to succeed in next year’s election. Turkey’s economy was reeling even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the war has only aggravated that deterioration. Inflation in Turkey was about 70% as of April, and the value of Turkey’s currency has fallen more than 50% since early 2021. Ankara had hoped that the trip would, at the very least, fully end the Saudi boycott of Turkish imports. In an effort to help stabilize Turkey’s currency, Ankara also proposed that Saudi Arabia join an existing currency swap network currently worth $28 billion that involves China, South Korea, Qatar, and the UAE. Erdogan also reportedly sought a Saudi commitment to new investments in Turkey, perhaps larger than the $10 billion investment fund the UAE pledged for Turkey in November 2021. Yet, no Saudi financial or trade commitments were announced during the course of Erdogan’s visit, suggesting that his economic objectives for the trip were not achieved. During his return to Ankara, Erdogan offered a vague readout of  the economic accord by stating, "We agreed with Saudi Arabia to reactivate a great economic potential through organizations that will bring our investors together." Still, the diplomatic success of the trip might yet yield concrete economic benefits for Turkey in the coming months, perhaps in time for Erdogan to rejuvenate his campaign for re-election next year.