Turkey’s top diplomat embarks on fence-mending visit to Riyadh

Anakara has given its support for Gulf reconciliation and which it hoped would provide it with an opportunity to return to the region through the front door. But it has not taken any tangible steps to show good faith.

Tuesday 11/05/2021
A file picture of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. (REUTERS)
A file picture of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. (REUTERS)

ANKARA  - Turkey’s foreign minister arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday for talks aimed at overcoming a years-long diplomatic rift.

Mevlut Cavusoglu was due to hold talks in the kingdom after years of tensions between the two regional powers, which are also at odds over Turkish support for Qatar in a dispute with its Gulf neighbours and over President Tayyip Erdogan’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Saudi Arabia.

Turkish officials had said Cavusoglu’s visit could include talks on possible sales of Turkish drones to Saudi Arabia, which they said Riyadh had requested. The current violent clashes in Jerusalem may also overshadow the bilateral talks.

“In Saudi Arabia to discuss bilateral relations and important regional issues, especially the attacks at the Al Aqsa Mosque and the oppression against the Palestinian people,” Cavusoglu wrote on Twitter upon his arrival in Saudi Arabia.

Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, also visited Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah on Monday evening and met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to discuss bilateral ties and regional and international matters of common interest.

Qatar has close relations with Turkey and may be facilitating the latter’s talks with Riyadh, after the two Gulf countries reached in January a breakthrough in a three-year-old dispute. A statement issued by the emir’s office did not give further details.

More than 300 Palestinians were wounded on Monday, the Palestinian Red Crescent said, as Palestinian protesters threw rocks and Israeli police fired stun grenades and rubber bullets outside al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

Later in the day, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas said it had fired rockets into Israel, triggering warning sirens in Jerusalem and near the Gaza border, in an apparent response to the Palestinian injuries.

Erdogan said on Saturday the ongoing clashes showed Israel was a “terror state,” and that Ankara was working to mobilise international institutions.

On Monday he spoke to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh, state-owned Anadolu agency said.

Overcoming turbulence

Cavusoglu’s trip was initially intended to focus on mending bilateral ties that soured when Jamal Khashoggi – a Saudi journalist– was killed in Istanbul in 2018.

Erdogan said at the time the order to kill Khashoggi came from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government – a charge Saudi Arabia rejects. Ankara tried to exploit the case politically as much as it could to the displeasure of Saudi Arabia.

The crisis prompted an unofficial Saudi trade boycott which slashed the value of Turkish imports by 98%. Saudi Arabia is also closing eight Turkish schools in the kingdom, Anadolu reported last month.

Cavusoglu’s two-day visit follows Turkey’s talks last week with Egypt, another US-allied regional power, also aimed at repairing troubled relations.

Though Turkey is apparently seeking to improve ties with Saudi Arabia, political analysts argue Ankara is following a set of contradictory approaches in its relationship with Riyadh.

While displaying intent to surmount the legacy of past problems, Ankara is still trying to impose its regional policies.

Turkey has given its support for Gulf reconciliation and which it hoped would provide it with an opportunity to return to the region through the front door. But it has not taken any tangible steps to show good faith, whether at the political level nor in the media, nor especially on the ground through its network of relations in Yemen or the Horn of Africa.

Turkish support for groups and militias linked to the Muslim Brotherhood is one of the factors that have hindered the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement. This support has not eased tensions within Yemen’s “legitimacy” camp and flies in the face of the Saudi plan to speed a Yemeni political settlement that ensures Riyadh’s national security and curtails Iranian influence in the strategic region.

According to media reports, Turkey supports the continuation of chaos in Yemen until it secures a strategic foothold for itself in the region.

Ankara has also enhanced its intelligence presence in the region by sending security officers under various covers, including humanitarian missions, such as working for the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation.

The matter does not stop at Yemen nor at obstructing a political settlement there that would enable Riyadh to exit with the least possible damage. Turkish activities blocking the interests of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have become more obvious in the Horn of Africa, with a focus on securing positions in Somalia and Djibouti.

Last year, Saudi businessmen endorsed an unofficial boycott of Turkish goods in response to what they called hostility from Ankara, slashing the value of trade by 98%.

A senior Turkish official said that the trade embargo and the conflicts in Syria and Libya would be discussed with the Saudis as Cavusoglu visits Riyadh. A Saudi request for Turkish armed drones may also be on the agenda, two Turkish officials said.

Erdogan said in March Saudi Arabia sought to buy Turkish armed unmanned aerial vehicles. Several countries have shown interest in the drones, which were used in conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

A foreign diplomat in Riyadh said the Saudis wanted to use Turkish drones against Iran-aligned Houthi militias in Yemen, and would discuss buying Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones.