Is Joe Biden making Turkey & Saudi Arabia rethink their relationship?

Last week, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivered a speech to members of his party where he said Turkey envisages “building our future together with Europe”. 

This declaration was followed within a week by the redeployment of Turkish seismic survey vessels to the Mediterranean, angering European states Greece and Cyprus. On Monday, Erdoğan summoned the Italian and German ambassadors to complain about a Turkish ship that was intercepted en route to Libya to be searched for weapons.

Whatever reset Erdoğan had in mind for relations with Europe has taken off to a rocky start, but another cold relationship for Turkey also saw hints of thawing.

On Saturday, Saudi Arabian’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud described relations with Turkey as “good and amicable”. These were surprising words given the enmity that has persisted between the two countries in recent years, but they follow a slew of recent warm words from Riyadh’s leaders.

After an earthquake ravaged the Turkish city of Izmir on Oct. 30, Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz personally ordered deliveries of aid to demonstrate his “keenness on standing by the brotherly Turkish people”. This was followed several weeks later by a phone call to Erdoğan in which both leaders expressed interest in improving bilateral relations. Speaking at the G20 summit hosted by Saudi Arabia over the weekend, Erdoğan praised the king, who he described as a “dear brother.”

Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of the geopolitical risk consultancy Gulf State Analytics in Washington D.C, said that these statements reflect a desire to tone down tensions ahead of new geopolitical realities setting in. The most urgent one being Joe Biden’s victory over U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration’s impending arrival.

“I can’t help but conclude that the change in leadership in Washington is relevant to these developments in Saudi-Turkish relations,” Cafiero told Ahval in a podcast interview.

Cafiero suggests that Saudi Arabia in particular has much to be concerned about following Trump’s defeat, after years of his administration providing top-level cover for its human rights violations. In comparison, Biden labelled the kingdom a “pariah state” and is likely to pursue a stronger line with Riyadh on this front.

This argument about the impact of a Biden administration has been similarly applied to Turkey. Erdoğan cultivated a strong personal bond with Trump, something that earned dividends when the U.S. president shielded Turkey from congressional ire over the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system and attacks on the U.S.’ Kurdish allies in Syria. Biden in comparison has vowed to stand up to Erdoğan, who he labelled an autocrat he’d like to see defeated.

Cafiero agreed Erdoğan “has good reasons to worry about how a Biden administration will impact Turkey-U.S. relations”, but pointed to more convergence on some issues including the Qatar boycott or the conflict in Libya. Saudi Arabia in comparison sees less common ground with Biden and more risks attached to his administration.

Another factor that will influence any Saudi Arabia-Turkey rapprochement is the United Arab Emirates, whose rivalry with Ankara he says runs much deeper. From Turkey’s perspective, Cafiero described the UAE “as its number one geopolitical foe in the wider region”.

The Emirates has long rejected the political Islam espoused by Erdoğan’s government, particularly his backing of the Muslim Brotherhood. That has driven it to oppose Turkey across the Middle East and even throw its support behind European states against Ankara.

Saudi Arabia shares many of the same positions as the UAE, but Cafiero insists this stance is less rigid, particularly on the Muslim Brotherhood. One example of how this plays out is over Qatar, Turkey’s only Gulf ally. Saudi officials have suggested they want to seek some compromise with the country, something the UAE rejects.

“The UAE perception of the alleged Qatari threat is very ideological, it is very rigid,” said Cafiero. “If the blockade were to end without Qatar having to make concessions, it would send out a message about the effectiveness of Turkey as an ally of Arab countries.”

To some in Turkey, a rift inside the Saudi Arabia-UAE axis begs the question of how much further it can be widened. However, Cafiero cautions that any differences today do not point to a divorce between the Gulf allies, nor do they make up for a lack of real trust in Riyadh or Ankara.

In some ways, King Salman’s recent diplomacy may be the last chance to improve relations before his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known by the initials MbS – ascends to the throne. 

MbS has described Turkey before as part of a “triangle of evil” in the Middle East alongside Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. He was also responsible for leading Riyadh into supporting the blockade of Qatar and supporting the UAE in Libya. After the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, the blow to the kingdom’s image was enormous enough to prompt King Salman to assert more control over his son in foreign policy.

Time, Cafiero insists, is not on Erdoğan’s side given the king’s poor health and the near certainty that MbS, 35, will replace him, promising decades of his rule.

“What is clear is that the king will not be alive forever,” said Cafiero. “The relationship will become much more difficult to manage once MbS becomes the king. At that point, Erdogan will have no choice but to engage with MbS or not.”  

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.