Saudi Arabia, the leader of Arab world and Turkey the only Muslim country in Europe, have conducted quiet diplomacy in recent times on streamlining and strengthening bilateral ties and both agreed weeks ago in Riyadh to form a Strategic Cooperation Council to coordinate and develop relations between the countries in terms of economic, political, defense, security, education and health issues. Before that, the custodian of the two holy mosques, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud received Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at his palace in Riyadh during the prime minister’s official visit Jan. 31. During his visit to Riyadh, Davutoglu met with a number of Saudi businessmen, was keen to persuade them to increase the size of their investments in Turkey. Following the meeting between the Saudi king and Davutoglu, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir agreed to implement the Strategic Cooperation Council and appoint two joint presidents for the council. The meeting followed up on discussions in December, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia. The crown prince had visited Ankara in April 2015 a few hours before Erdogan’s visit to Iran, so as to brief Erdogan on Tehran’s security interventions in the Gulf and military interference in Yemen.
Turkey is characterized by its strategic location linking Europe and Asia and its growing and diversified economy under the rule of the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP has implemented an economic program designed to reduce imports, focusing on producing and exporting local products based on local raw materials and establishing international business partnerships with Europe and oil-rich countries in the Middle East. This is not to mention Turkey’s military power, as it has the second-largest army in NATO with 670,000 soldiers, following that of the USA.
The relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia until now has been treated as almost sacrosanct. Although Turkish and Saudi views on regional issues do not always coincide, both Ankara and Riyadh have kept their bilateral relations away from regional squabbles. Turks, in general, associate Saudi Arabia with pilgrimage (Hajj) and oil prices. Aware of the tense rivalry for regional influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkey has tried to maintain good relations with both countries, and it was in Syria that Turkish and Saudi interests meshed. NATO member Turkey and a close US ally Saudi Arabia also are focusing on military cooperation, especially with regard to Syria and Egypt.
The royal palace in Riyadh welcomed Davutoglu with a luncheon by Prime Minister Salman in the presence of senior Saudi officials, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The lunch also included the Saudi defense minister and chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who later held a meeting with Davutoglu, given that the deputy crown prince is responsible for the military and economic affairs in Saudi Arabia.
The final signing of the council agreement is scheduled during Salman’s visit to Turkey to participate in the 13th session of Islamic summit on April 10-15, which is held every three years. The summit will be held in Istanbul under the auspices of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which was established in September 1969 and includes 57 member states on four continents.
Turkey seeks, through its Strategic Cooperation with Riyadh, to increase Saudi investment in Turkey, which currently amounts to about $2 billion — namely in real estate and other activities such as industry, tourism and energy — to $25 billion by 2023. Ankara also seeks to obtain a bigger share of development projects in Saudi Arabia to the benefit of 200 Turkish companies operating in the field of construction and contracting, whose investments reached $1 billion during 2015. According to sources, a group of Turkish companies would land contracts with the Saudi Housing Ministry for the construction of residential units with an area of 300 million square meters (3.2 billion square feet); while the value could be as much as $240 billion.
Despite the expected benefits on the political and military levels after the cooperation agreement is enacted, and despite the AKP’s positive stance and support of Saudi Arabia and its genuine endeavor to promote cooperation between the two countries, Saudis who are banking on any foreign military and economic alliances should be realistic and cautious in their optimism. This is especially true since the Turkish government might be powerful, but is not very likely to demonstrate the same influence and power abroad as the Saudis wish — given Turkey’s economic considerations with Iran, and for military reasons, as it is a member of NATO, not to mention the security reasons in light of the battle with armed Kurdish groups at home.
Saudi Arabia has delivered tactical nuclear weapons to Turkey. Turkey already has 84 nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base but under NATO control. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have American planes, both F 15 and F 16 modified for nuclear attack by Israel. America has removed all nuclear attack planes from Turkey under orders of President Obama. Many in Europe want to divide NATO and Turkey. Rumors have it that Turkey has a contingency plan to seize the NATO nuclear arsenal at Incirlik with the help of Saudi Special Forces, who have been trained in Israel to defeat US nuclear weapon security measures. Saudi Arabia is moving planes to the American nuclear base in Turkey. Turkey has not raised its voice against Riyadh while disparaging other countries.
It is worth considering the policy of these two nations towards Shiite Iran. Both were disturbed by Iran’s expansionist and sectarian attitude. Iran is spending massive resources on shedding Muslim blood and destabilizing Muslim countries. The Saudi kingdom seems to feel besieged. They are thinking of overcoming that sentiment by forming a Sunni bloc against Iran. Israel will of course be delighted with the idea and the USA may feel it is obtaining another pressure element against Iran in their nuclear talks. The Saudis, well aware of Iran’s influence on the Shiites and other non-Sunni Muslims, want to pull in Turkey and Egypt to the bloc they want to form.
Riyadh, uncomfortable with Iran’s growing influence over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, is pulling Turkey to its side. Saudi Arabia is anxiously looking at Iran’s growing power and influence in the Arab region following the relief of international sanctions by Europe, the USA and the International Atomic Energy Agency, not to mention lifting the ban on its oil exports, which allowed it to restore half of its frozen assets abroad, amounting to $100 billion. In this context, Riyadh is turning toward Sunni-dominated Turkey, considering that the close economic, security and military ties have become a strategic need to protect the security of the Gulf and reduce the risk of Iranian influence in the smoldering Arab areas such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Davutoglu’s criticism of Iran’s behavior with its Arab neighbors during his interview with Al-Arabiya channel Feb. 3, although he described Iran as a friendly and neighboring country to avoid raising Tehran’s ire; there is $14 billion in trade between Turkey and Iran. Escalating sectarian tensions owing to Iranian influences in the region will have no benefit for Turkey and any other country. It will mean more violence and death.
Despite their regional rivalry, Turkey has never deviated from its stable relations with Iran in the past. The two countries have not been engaged in a border conflict since 1639 and realize the importance of understanding each other, and somehow getting along. However, this new polarization Ankara officials promote as “partnership against sectarianism” of Iran may well serve only to inflame sectarian conflict and negatively impact that stability.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned the Iranian ambassador to Ankara on Jan. 7 to protest Iranian media outlets that had linked Erdogan’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and Riyadh’s death sentence against Shiite Saudi cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. This is not to mention the Iranian media accusing Erdogan of previously being aware of Riyadh’s decision and of coordinating with Saudi authorities to implement the death sentence against Nimr. These accusations came in response to Erdogan’s statements that the death sentence is a Saudi internal affair.