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Opinion: Saudi–Turkish relations | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A handout picture provided by Turkish Presidental Press Office shows Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud (L) and Turkish President Abdullah Gul during their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, 21 May 2013. (EPA)

Due to its expanding foreign policy over the last decade, Turkey has started giving increased attention to developments in the world and following its issues closely.

Today, we see Turkey trying to develop its relations with most countries in the region, placing this among the priorities of its new foreign policy. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia holds a special position within the new Turkish foreign policy. Turkish–Saudi relations have seen marked progress since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) took office. We can say that relations between the two countries have reached a very good level, and they continue to rise.

Bilateral relations between the two have reached the highest levels in most fields—especially the economic, political and cultural fields, following the AKP’s rise to power in Turkey. This can be seen clearly in the exchange of visits and the new agreements. Turkey’s recent successes have gained the admiration of Saudi Arabia, which led to officials on all levels becoming closer.

Saudi Arabia has around 25% of the Arab world’s GNP, enjoys membership of the G20, and is considered to be one of the world’s largest and most important economies in the region.

The kingdom’s economy has been growing since 2002 with the increase in oil prices around the world. Since 2008, it has been focused on projects aimed at diversifying its economy, and developing infrastructure and new business models, in the hopes of reducing the kingdom’s economic reliance on oil and to achieve balanced economic development.

Turkish–Saudi relations have flourished in the economic field (in addition to other fields) since Turgut Özal took office in the 1980s. The new foreign policy adopted by Özal’s government at the time freed Turkey from isolation and dependency. It opened it up to the world and helped it take initiatives and apply innovative policies. This development reflected on Turkish–Saudi relations, too, when Turkey under Özal adopted a policy to get closer to Saudi Arabia to achieve economic success based on export while at the same time securing the country’s oil requirements. This positive climate in bilateral relations was reflected in the exchange of visits at the highest levels.

While relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia went through a kind of stalemate following Özal’s death, they gathered pace in many fields, especially the economic sector, following the AKP’s rise to power. The subject of energy played a pivotal part in the functioning of economic relations between the two countries, because Turkey was an importer of energy while Saudi Arabia is an exporter. Saudi Arabia is number one in the Gulf, and sixth globally, in terms of projects carried out by Turkish companies. The size of the projects awarded to Turkish companies in Saudi Arabia reached USD 12.1 billion in the first half of 2012.

In the meantime, Turkey became the fastest-growing economy in the Middle East, achieving a GNP of USD 740 billion in 2008, followed by Saudi Arabia in second place with USD 476 billion in the same year. According to data from the Turkish Exporters Assembly, Turkish exports to the kingdom in 2012 increased by 37% to reach USD 3.75 billion , taking the kingdom to eighth position in terms of Turkish exports in 2012, while it was 13th in 2011. The kingdom’s share of total Turkish exports reached 3% in 2012, while it was 2.1% in 2011.

Bilateral relations saw a noticeable development in many fields, chief of which were the military, training and culture. The visit by the Saudi deputy defense minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan to Turkey in 2010, during which he met his Turkish counterpart and signed a new cooperation agreement, signified the importance of economic relations between the two countries. The participation of Saudi Arabia in the air force exercises named “Anatolian Eagle” in Konya in 2011 signified the high-level military cooperation between Riyadh and Ankara.

The democratic change in the Mediterranean and the Middle East has become irreversible. This wave of change has led to the toppling of the leaders of some countries and achieved some reforms in others. There is no doubt that Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been affected by this wave, each according to their own specific situation.

Both countries supported similar ideas during this stage of the Middle East’s development. First, they agreed that the people’s demands must be taken into consideration. For its part, Turkey encouraged the region’s countries to announce the implementation of comprehensive reforms. They also agreed that the use of violence and excessive force against the general is unacceptable. Second, they felt that countries’ sovereignty, and their territorial and political integrity, must be preserved and these elements must all be respected.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey also felt that change must be directed by the people, and that changes must not be allowed to be exploited by extremist groups who aim to incite sectarian, ethnic and ideological division. For its part, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not overlooked the issue of Syrian refugees in Turkey, and has granted USD 50 million in aid to this end.

There can be no doubt that the exchange of visits between countries plays a vital role in developing bilateral relations. The visit by King Abdullah to Turkey in 2006 was the first visit by a Saudi king for 40 years. Bilateral relations saw rapid development since the visit when, less than one year later, the king paid a second visit to Turkey in 2007.

In return, the Turkish president paid a visit to Saudi Arabia from in February 2009. He visited the kingdom again to participate in the opening ceremony of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in September 2009. Extensive visits continued between 2006 and 2012, both on an individual basis and by delegations participating in conferences and international summits.

The visit of Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz to our country came at a time when the region is going through a sensitive phase, which makes it important for the two countries to hold consultations on issues of mutual interest and develop bilateral relations. That is why Turkey attaches great importance to this visit.

Finally, we can say that the new challenges and threats which appeared in the region with the occupation of Iraq by the United States in 2003 saw Turkish–Saudi relations enter a new phase. The Arab Spring, the US withdrawal from Iraq, and the global economic crisis which beset Europe and the US have led the kingdom to review its strategic priorities. Therefore, the changing circumstances have shown the importance of bilateral cooperation and sensible effort between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.