Changing relations (Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt))

King Salman with Erdogan
In fewer than 15 months, the late Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, visited Turkey twice, signalling the close ties between the two countries.The first visit was in August 2006, when he was greeted by then Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer. It was the first official trip by a Saudi monarch to Turkey in more than seven decades, since the two sides signed a cooperation and friendship agreement in 1929.The second was in November 2007, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Abdullah Gul, then at the start of his presidency, was coming to power in Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was then the leader of the executive branch.Both visits were seen as turning points in relations between Turkey, the successor state of the former Ottoman Empire, and not only with Saudi Arabia but with all the Arab states.The media reported that regional events had encouraged both sides to draw closer together. There seemed little doubt that the positive moves would create stronger relations, and Saudi businessmen were eager to benefit from Turkish investment incentives. Turkish politicians said they were keen to support Saudi investment.The atmosphere reflected well on bilateral trade, which multiplied threefold to reach $3.3 billion by the end of 2006, and then $8.4 billion before it dropped to $7.4 billion in 2013.There were 300 Saudi-funded real estate companies operating in Turkey, and by 2012 Saudi direct investment in Turkey was more than $1.6 billion.Similar economic leaps and bounds occurred in Ankara’s relationships with other Gulf states. There were huge business deals, cooperation in trade and real estate, revived tourism and dozens of weekly flights between Gulf cities and Istanbul.Saudi-Turkish coordination peaked in the second year of the Syrian Revolution, and both countries financially supported the Syrian opposition and Free Syrian Army, succeeding in securing global recognition for the opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.However, this upward curve came to a halt and went into free fall after Erdogan took hardline positions towards the changes in Egypt that led to the removal of former president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group from power.The Gulf states that support Egypt stood up to Turkey, criticising it for not supporting the newly installed Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE cancelled large investments at a cost of more than $12 billion for Turkey, or half the value of their investments in the country.An even heavier blow came in opposition to Turkey’s desire to obtain a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council in October 2014. This came as a shock to Turkish public opinion and was used by the country’s opposition to criticise Erdogan and his foreign policy in the Middle East.The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet quoted unnamed diplomatic sources as saying that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel had all played key roles in blocking Turkey’s plans to reoccupy the seat it had held in 2009-2010.The sources said the AKP government’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood had been the main reason behind the modest support for Turkey at the UN (only 60 votes), together with Ankara’s hostile policies towards Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for their support of Al-Sisi.In January this year, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Libya threatened to boycott the African Summit after Qatar and Turkey were invited by the African Union to attend a meeting on the Libyan crisis, forcing the invitations to be retracted.Although decision-makers have tried to minimise the impact of these moves, they angered Ankara and caused discontent in Turkish business because of lost investments and damaged economic interests.Ankara has tried to mend fences, ending media campaigns in newspapers loyal to the ruling AKP that had criticised the Gulf states and especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE.This did not end the tensions, but when King Abdullah died earlier this year Erdogan immediately cut short an African tour and flew to Riyadh to offer his condolences. He declared a period of mourning in Turkey and ordered the Turkish flag to be flown at half-mast.He was well received in Saudi Arabia, and a private visit followed, along with talks with King Salman this week, during which Erdogan was also warmly welcomed. Doha may have worked behind the scenes to make the trip a success.As Erdogan prepared to leave Ataturk Airport in Istanbul on his way to Saudi Arabia for the talks this week, he did not make statements that could be misunderstood by Saudi leaders.Asked whether he would be meeting with Al-Sisi while in Saudi Arabia, he denied the possibility but avoided reiterating his standard criticism of what he has described as a “coup” in Cairo.“In order for such a meeting to take place serious steps have to be taken on a positive path,” Erdogan said.The question remains of whether further shifts in Turkish-Saudi relations are to be expected after this week’s visit.Sources close to decision-making circles are optimistic, and it is likely relations will improve, given the turmoil in the region caused by the Islamic State (IS) group and President Al-Assad’s continuing grip on power in Syria.Differences between the two countries on Egypt will likely continue, but agreement is expected that they should not impact on relations between Ankara and Riyadh.