Turkish foreign minister visits Saudi Arabia in bid to normalise troubled relationship

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has embarked on a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia in a bid to accelerate the normalisation of relations between the regional rivals. 

Çavuşoğlu landed in Riyadh on Monday, where he was greeted by Turkey’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia Erdoğan Kök before moving on to meetings with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah al-Saud. 

This visit marks the first time a high-level Turkish official has travelled to the kingdom in four years after ties frayed over the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar in 2017 and the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul a year later. 

Çavuşoğlu’s trip is taking place months into a Turkish drive to de-escalate tensions with its neighbours after relations cratered over a litany of disagreements. Last week, Turkish officials traveled to Egypt, another long-time rival, to discuss ways to improve ties.

Prior to the Saudi meetings, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had spoken on the phone with King Salman twice about improving ties. One step they agreed on in April was the meeting of their foreign ministers to carry the process forward.  In a press release announcing the trip, the Turkish foreign ministry explained the trip was a way to exchange views on regional matters and discuss the bilateral relationship further. 

An anonymous senior Turkish official told Reuters that Çavuşoğlu and al-Saud would likely discuss their positions on the conflicts in Syria and Libya. 

In Libya, the two back opposing sides. Saudi Arabia has opposed Turkey’s military interventions into Syria, including its most recent offensive in October 2019. 

An ongoing informal trade boycott of Turkish goods in Saudi Arabia was also likely to be an important topic during the visit. This was launched after Turkish prosecutors indicted some of the Saudi operatives behind the murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

Erdoğan and the CIA have said that responsibility for the plot to kill Khashoggi lay at the top levels of the Saudi government. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is believed to be responsible for giving the assassination order given the involvement of his close advisors and his consolidation of control over Saudi intelligence during his tenure, according to analysts. 

The closure of eight Turkish schools in Saudi Arabia is also an issue that could emerge in the meeting. In Erdogan’s last call with King Salman, he broached the topic but the king gave no reason for the closure. 

Saudi Arabia has long been opposed to political Islam, particularly as it relates to the Muslim Brotherhood. During the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia and its allies Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, actively opposed movements aligned to the Brotherhood, putting them at odds with Turkey and Qatar. 

While Çavuşoğlu has a list of difficult disagreements to discuss in Riyadh, he also has some areas where common ground can be found. One the minister has already mentioned on arrival in Riyadh was responding to an outbreak of clashes in Jerusalem between Israeli security forces and Palestinian demonstrators. 

Early Monday morning, Israeli police conducted a raid on the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, that left over 300 Palestinians wounded, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. Nine more Palestinians were killed in an Israeli airstrike that was launched in retaliation for rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip on Jerusalem. 

Erdoğan on Monday vowed in a phone call with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh to mobilise against “Israeli terror” as his foreign ministry condemned the Israeli actions.

Upon arrival in the Kingdom, Çavuşoğlu tweeted that “the attacks at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the oppression against the Palestinian people” would be on the agenda of his visit. Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries condemned Israel for its plans to expand Jewish settlements into eastern Jerusalem and its violent raid on Al-Aqsa. 

Discussions about the Saudi purchase of Turkish armed drones is also possible. In March, Erdogan announced that Saudi Arabia expressed interest in acquiring the weapons and a foreign diplomat told Reuters that Riyadh was interested in using them in Yemen. 

Two Saudi companies previously secured a joint production agreement for the Karayel-SU drone from Turkish firm Vestel Savunma. Owing to the negative reaction in many Western countries to the Saudi conduct of the war in Yemen, the kingdom has been refused sales of similar equipment from their traditional suppliers. 

After their successful usage in Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya, Turkey has seen interest in its armed drones spike with a number of countries expressing interest in the platforms.