Saudi Arabia seeks to contain Ankara’s regional, international pursuits through diplomacy
LONDON - In late January, all eyes in Ankara were on Riyadh when Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud met with Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides, whose visit took place amid renewed tensions with arch-rival Turkey.
Cyprus accused Turkey of ignoring international law by sending oil-and-gas drilling ships to waters off southern Cyprus where Greek Cypriot authorities had awarded hydrocarbon exploration rights to France’s Total and Italy’s Eni.
Ankara’s fears materialised after Saudi Arabia expressed full support for the Cyprus side.
“The kingdom is following with great interest the current developments in the Eastern Mediterranean region, is showing its concern for security and stability there and stresses its full support for the sovereignty of Cyprus over its territories,” Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said.
Saudi Arabia “calls on all parties to abide by and adhere to [UN] Security Council resolutions to resolve disputes, to avoid escalation, to respect the rules of international law and not to interfere in the internal affairs of states or attempts to impose the status quo by force, as that does not serve international peace, security and stability in this region.”
A Saudi statement also said the Turkish parliament’s approval of sending forces to Libya breached the Security Council resolutions and created an obstacle to international efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis.
Riyadh’s support for Cyprus and its condemnation of Ankara’s incursion in Libya are the latest chapters in a dispute between Ankara and Gulf countries that accuse Turkey of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, meddling in regional Arab affairs and backing extremists.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey once had affable relations, particularly during what has been described as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “moderate phase.” However, when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates supported popular protests and a military coup that resulted in the removal of a Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government in Egypt in 2013, Turkey was on the other side of the issue
Matters escalated in 2017 after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — the Arab Quartet — severed ties with Turkey’s ally Qatar over what they described as support for terrorism and banned Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as its ties with Iran.
Many countries with ties to both the Arab Quartet countries and Qatar took a neutral stance. However, Ankara set up a military base in Qatar, which was interpreted as a threat by some Gulf countries.
The perceived political exploitation by the Turkish government of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, allegedly by rogue Saudi operatives, did not sit well with Saudi officials, who viewed Ankara’s display of concern as disingenuous and opportunistic, based on its record of mistreating journalists.
The deteriorating relations trickled down to aspects of Saudi-Turkish ties that once thrived — investments and tourism.
Last May, Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry (RCCI) Chairman Ajlan Al-Ajlan warned against investments in Turkey because of Ankara’s declining economic circumstances.
“The RCCI has received several complaints from Saudi investors in Turkey who faced problems threatening their investments,” Ajlan was quoted as saying by the Saudi Gazette.
“There are instances in which Saudi owners of properties are being prevented from entering their homes and deprived of ownership deeds. There is no intervention on the part of the authorities to put an end to such harassment cases.”
The geopolitical climate has also affected tourism in Turkey.
Last summer, the Saudi Foreign Ministry warned citizens travelling to Turkey to take extra precautions, particularly from scam artists targeting tourists. Sky News Arabia reported that this was the fifth travel warning regarding Turkey issued by the Saudi government in the last year.
Additionally, Saudi media have been discouraging tourism to Turkey, with reports suggesting it is a dangerous holiday destination. Saudi social media users referenced the killing of seven Saudi nationals in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve 2017.
Saudi social media users have also called for a boycott of Turkish products.
Recently a video showing a Turkish man harassing a Saudi family went viral, renewing calls to avoid the country.
In February, the Greek government said it would be sending air defence systems to Saudi Arabia to protect Saudi oil installations, news likely to displease Turkey.
Foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti signed a charter founding the Council of Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, a move that emphasises that Riyadh has options.