Turkey’s scramble to mend ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia

Last week was very busy for Turkish diplomacy as Turkey worked hard to hold negotiations with two big brothers of the Arab world, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Undoubtedly, U.S. President Joe Biden taking office in January contributed to positive outcomes of Ankara’s hard work.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Saudi Arabia for the first time on May 11, after a four-year period of fractured relations. After his meeting with his Saudi counterpart Faisal bin Farhan, Çavuşoğlu said the two countries would continue close cooperation to “contribute to stability, peace and prosperity in the region”.

Çavuşoğlu told reporters that he invited bin Farhan to Turkey, and that bilateral talks would continue after the “very open, sincere” meeting, state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Tuesday.

Ahead of his visit, Çavuşoğlu had said he could also meet the foreign minister of regional rival Egypt. This announcement came after a Turkish delegation held meetings in Cairo last week, following a months-long crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood members in Turkey.

Turkey’s relations with both countries started to deteriorate after General Abdulfettah al-Sisi seized power in Egypt via military coup in July 2013.

At the time, Turkey and Egypt mutually withdrew their ambassadors, but trade relations continued uninterrupted. When the coup took down Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohamed Morsi, trade volume between the countries stood at $5.2 billion, and it has remained at almost the same level to date.

Diplomatic relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia continued uninterrupted despite several conflicts. It was after mid-2017, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took over, that trade and investments started to decline sharply.

Turkey's exports to Saudi Arabia fell to $11 million in April this year, down by 94.4 percent from $200 million last year, according to Turkish pro-government newspaper Sabah.

A key factor in diplomatic channels remaining open was undoubtedly King Salman's dovish personality.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was able to meet on occasion with King Salman, who de-facto handed over his powers to his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The crown prince then cut off imports from Turkey completely, and closed Turkish schools in the country.

Turkish-Saudi relations have been shaped by three major events in the last decade, the first being the Arab Spring, which started in late 2010. Although the two countries adopted different positions in the face of developments in Egypt, they allied to fight against Bashar Assad in Syria.

Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and various Syrian Islamist groups led to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates turning their backs on Ankara.

As tensions further escalated, Saudi Arabia banned Turkish television dramas, which are very popular in the Arab world. After the ban, the kingdom released a series titled “Kingdoms of Fire”, which depicted the Ottoman Empire as brutal and cruel.

The most dramatic development in Turkish-Saudi relations was the brutal murder of the Washington Post journalist, Saudi-born Jamal Khashoggi, in the Consulate General of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. President Erdoğan brought the issue to international attention as well as to the United Nations and bilateral international meetings. Vowing to personally follow up on the case, Erdoğan shared relevant information with the CIA and accused the Saudi crown prince of having orchestrated the murder himself.

The fact that then-U.S. President Donald Trump, who said he loved dictators, had a good relationship with the Saudi King and the crown prince prevented Erdoğan from dealing a final blow. While bin Salman never engaged in a war of words with Erdoğan, Saudi media and other Arab countries criticised the Turkish president.

Salman barred Saudi tourists and investors from going to Turkey and imposed an unofficial embargo on Turkish goods. As part of a public campaign, King Selman even apparently turned down Turkish coffee that was offered to him in a commercial.

According to a Times report on August 18, 2020, Yossi Cohen, the head of Israeli intelligence service Mossad, met with intelligence chiefs of the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and told his colleagues that Iran “has now a fragile structure and the real danger for the region is Turkey”.

Çavuşoğlu's visit to Riyadh may not likely to yield results in the short term, but there is a serious “Biden effect” in the region. It has been recently revealed Salman extended an olive branch to Iran, an eternal enemy of the Saudi regime, and has been holding talks since April.

In the meantime, Saudis are holding talks with the Syrian regime, which they froze relations completely following the Syrian civil war, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

is touring the Gulf countries, including the UAE. Palace coups are being organised in Jordan. Israel is expanding its circle of friends in the region. Egypt acts as a bridge between Europe and the region.

Çavuşoğlu’s ability to handle issues raises concerns amid all these historic developments.

Çavuşoğlu is trying to normalise relations with Egypt on behalf of Erdoğan, as he does with Saudi Arabia. However, a Sept. 3, 2013 speech by the minister reveals the limits of his scope.

“We are not surprised that the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), supporter of coups in Turkey, close friend of Assad, is now endorsing Sisi and the coup plotters in Egypt,” Çavuşoğlu said.

This narrow perspective is not limited to the minister. The Turkish-Egyptian friendship group of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, which Turkey reintroduced as a political gesture to mend relations, includes political figures who assaulted the Sisi regime in the past.

“The people of Egypt will be rescued from tyrants as they were saved from the cruel pharaohs in the past,” said İsmet Yılmaz, the head of the group and former minister of defence, in a speech on July 27, 2013.

Ali Şahin, another member of the group, said in a Twitter post on July 5, 2013, “Sooner or later General Sisi will face the legal consequences of overthrowing an elected government and will pay the price. We will see it all together.”

On Aug. 14, 2013, Şahin said, Sisi was “a poor man who thinks he will win against the will of the victims, the tears of the children of the martyrs and the free Egyptian people with a bullet”.

Without a doubt, Erdoğan shapes foreign policy as well as domestic politics. The president, calling himself a diplomatic genius, managed to pursue his agenda between two superpowers, such as the United States and Russia. However, he constantly made concessions to stay on the field.

Erdoğan's friendship with Trump had a heavy cost for Turkey. Turkey was removed from the F-35 project, which undermined the Turkish air force. Hundreds of millions of dollars Turkey paid to lobbying firms for decades to prevent U.S. presidents from using the term genocide for the 1915 mass deaths of Armenians went to waste due to Erdoğan's policies, when Biden did just that in an annual memorial message on April 24.

Erdoğan has managed to remain an important actor in the arena by making concessions, using disagreements between his rivals, and taking advantage of gaps in between. Is it possible for the Turkish president to bring his country back to a dominant position in the Middle East?

It must be noted that so far, his efforts have not yielded much results. It still appears it is very difficult for the president, at this time, to get lucky. Economically desperate, regionally isolated, universally hated, the head of the Turkish state is too toxic for many.

Meanwhile, he still needs all the help he can get financially from other countries in the region. Erdoğan had capitulated to Putin after the Russian jet incident, and Putin imposed severe sanctions in return. Similarly, it may be possible for Erdoğan to capitulate to demands by Cairo and Riyadh to obtain some amount of money that is needed.

We may find out soon enough.