The Saudi prince and foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan, receives his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavusoglu, in Riyadh on Tuesday with the aim of resuming dialogue between the two states and overcoming the differences that have caused an impasse in their relations since 2016. The meeting ends a five-year drought without official meetings between Saudi Arabia and Turkey amid the Turkish government's attempts to ease tensions with its regional neighbours.
Turkey's foreign ministry reported Çavusoglu's departure to the Kingdom in a terse statement. Upon his arrival, the Turkish government's foreign policy chief said on Twitter that he was already in Saudi Arabia to "discuss our bilateral relations and address important issues related to our region". "Especially the attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the persecution of the Palestinian people," he added.
Ministry sources leaked to the media that Çavusoglu's visit was in response to a possible negotiation for the sale of Ottoman-owned drones to the Wahhabi kingdom at the latter's request. In any case, Çavusoglu's trip is primarily aimed at repairing relations with Saudi Arabia and ending the boycott imposed by the Kingdom that is plaguing the Turkish economy. This was acknowledged by President Erdogan's advisor, Ibrahim Kalin, in statements to Reuters.
Riyadh and Ankara's positions have diverged on foreign policy. The conflict in Libya, where Saudi Arabia has backed General Haftar and Turkey is backing Fayez al-Sarraj's Government of National Accord, has further dilated tensions between the two. Another sticking point has been Recep Tayyip Erdogan's support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is persecuted by the Saudi regime.
Relations with Qatar have also been a source of controversy between the two. While Saudi Arabia and its regional partners vetoed the Emirate for its strong links to political Islamism, Turkey sided with Qatar in the dispute in what experts interpreted as President Erdogan's sponsorship of an expansionist agenda. However, the normalisation of Qatar's relations with its Gulf neighbours at the Al-Ula summit puts the Emirate back in the spotlight.
For this reason, Qatar is reportedly playing a moderating role and could facilitate talks between Ankara and Riyadh. The news of the visit of the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to the Saudi city of Jeddah to meet with Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, seems to point in this direction.
These are the evidences that prove the disparity of interests in the region, however, the heinous murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a squad sent by Mohamed bin Salman himself to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018 ultimately dynamited bilateral relations between Ankara and Riyadh. Erdogan stated that the express order to kill Khashoggi originated from "the highest levels" of the Saudi regime. A CIA report published in February confirmed the suspicions despite Saudi Arabia's denial.
Following the disappearance of the Saudi journalist, the Ottoman judiciary launched a judicial investigation into the case. The proceedings initiated by the Turkish courts resulted in prison sentences for eight people involved in Khashoggi's murder. Only a few months earlier, Saudi Arabia held its own trial on the matter with eight other alleged convicts. Kalin, the Turkish president's adviser, welcomed the trial in Saudi Arabia: "They have had a court. Trials have been held.
Turkey's drive to find culprits irritated Riyadh. The kingdom decided to put pressure on Saudi companies to boycott Turkey's commercial sector. The economic harassment led to a 93 per cent drop in Turkish exports to the Saudi regime compared to the previous year between January and April this year, according to the Turkish Exporters' Assembly (TIM). At the same time, the total volume of trade with Saudi Arabia plummeted from $1 billion to $67 million.
Economic consequences have not been the only ones to emerge from the tensions. The erosion of bilateral relations has also materialised in the academic sphere with the closure of 16 Turkish schools on Saudi soil, eight this year and another eight last year. The Kingdom's Ministry of Education made the decision public last April in the face of the Turkish government's failure to act. In addition, the Saudi Ministry amended textbooks to refer to the Ottoman Empire's presence in the Arabian Peninsula as 'occupation' in August 2019.
Immersed in a complex geopolitical situation and with a role inferior to that of its rivals, Erdogan's government is seeking to influence a line of recovery and stabilisation of its bilateral relations with the different regional actors. For this reason, Ankara is trying to show a favourable image in the Middle East, especially with the UAE and Egypt. The Turkish government has paid special attention to its relations with the latter, which is also an ally of Saudi Arabia.