Saudi-Turkish relations revived by shared interests

In August, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah made a historic three-day visit to Turkey, meeting with both President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was the first visit by a Saudi monarch since the last visit by King Faisal in 1966. Although the Turkish media was obsessed with the size of the monarch’s delegation, which comprised some 400 members – and their 450 hotel rooms, some 17 planes that brought the delegation as well the 60 limousines that were hired to accommodate the delegation – the real substance of the visit lies far beyond the banal perceptions about the kingdom by an often uninformed and one-sided press. The monarch’s visit signified the importance of politics and economics in relations between the two countries. It also signified Turkey’s re-engagment in the Middle East through a variety of avenues. The first avenue was the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). After keeping a healthy distance from the OIC since its inception, Turkey sought and took up the post of secretary-general of the forum in 2005 with the assignment of Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, an Egyptian-born historian of Turkish descent. In March, Erdogan attended an Arab League summit for the first time as a «permanent guest.» On his way back from the Khartoum summit, he even made a symbolic visit to the OIC headquarters in Jeddah, accompanied by several ministers and members of Parliament. Many Middle Eastern states, including all Gulf states, are beginning to see Turkey’s EU membership as an extension of the ties between the wider Islamic world and Europe. Turkey’s accession will confirm that the integration of Muslim countries with the global order is indeed possible. As Turkey increases its political ties with the Gulf and as EU-GCC relations become more important in any new Gulf security arrangement, Ankara’s role between Europe and the Gulf will only be augmented. Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry President and well-known Saudi businessman Sheikh Saleh Kamel, who is the world’s 114th richest man according to Forbes Magazine, said they hope Turkey will continue to increase its economic development and political stability. «We want Turkey to serve as a model for many Muslim countries. Muslim countries need Turkey’s experience,» Kamel said. Turkey’s refusal to allow US forces to use its territory for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was warmly received in the wider Arab world. Riyadh and Ankara share a common fear about a possible disintegration of Iraq. Riyadh is concerned about the disintegration of the south and the political and territorial empowerment of the Shia of Iraq. Shared views Ankara is anxious that the empowerment of the Kurds of northern Iraq could lead to deleterious spillover effects in Turkey. Ankara is also concerned about the fate of its citizens working in around 850 private Turkish security companies that are offering protection to US bases in Iraq. Moreover, there are around 20 construction companies owned, partially or wholly, by the Turkish military that operate in northern Iraq. On Iran, Riyadh and Ankara have similar views: Both oppose the use of force or regime change in Tehran. A nuclear Iran would also alter the Middle Eastern balance of power and create unwarranted risks that necessitate strategic cooperation, which brings Riyadh and Ankara closer. Moreover, Turkey’s latest position on the Arab-Israeli conflict has allowed Saudi Arabia to see Ankara as a prospective partner in any prospective initiative. In many ways, both countries see themselves as having some future mediating role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which also brings them closer together and in no way do these mediating roles conflict with one another. Over the past year, Ankara has consistently expressed its displeasure over hawkish Israeli policies in the occupied territories. In February Turkey became one of the first non-Arab countries to receive a Hamas delegation, to woo it into the diplomatic fold after the Palestinian resistance group won a majority in January’s parliamentary elections. In the most recent development, many Turkish members of Parliament have resigned from a Turkish-Israeli friendship committee in protest against the Israeli aggression in Palestine and Lebanon. Turkey’s proximity to Israel and its stand on the rights of the Palestinians are also viewed in a positive light and as useful instruments for Saudi Arabia to marshal in any future initiative by the kingdom. Finally, on the security front, both countries seem to be collaborating quite well. Although only announced a few weeks ago, in September 2003 Turkey apprehended two Saudis on the Interior Ministry’s most-wanted list of suspected al-Qaida militants as they crossed into Iraq’s Kurdish region from Turkey. Apart from politics at the very top of the agenda were energy security issues. A new $3.5 billion oil pipeline, which will serve as an east-west energy corridor linking Azerbaijan with Turkey, and from there to the Western markets, was inaugurated last month. After the pipeline becomes operative, 8 percent of the world’s oil will transit from Turkey, including Israel’s oil imports from Russia, which makes Turkey a key player in the global energy security scenario. Israel has a stake in the Azeri oil fields, from which it imports some 20 percent of its oil. At the economic level, two-way trade touched $2.6 billion in 2005, including $603 million worth of crude oil that Ankara imported from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Development Fund has financed about $300 million worth of projects in Turkey, and Saudi investors seeking a home for their burgeoning revenues are eyeing Turkey. With its roots in political Islam, the current Turkish government has veered its foreign policy eastward with an eye on economic gain. Among several recent deals in the Gulf, the $6.55 billion purchase of former monopoly Turk Telekom by Saudi Oger Telecom stands out. During King Abdullah’s visit to Ankara, six bilateral accords were signed. Contact between the two peoples is considerable. There are roughly 100,000 Turks in Saudi Arabia and should anyone look for a barber he will most likely find a Turk. A further 200,000 Turks perform pilgrimages and Umrah in the kingdom every year. With over 37,000 Saudis visiting the country last year, Turkey is a natural tourist destination for Gulf nationals, with several of them even buying property in western Turkey. These numbers are bound to increase after Ankara announced last month that visa rules have been eased for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nationals, granting them long-term entry visas upon arrival at Turkish entry points. (1) This is one in a series of articles by Dr John Sfakianakis, general manager and chief economist of Saudi British Bank/HSBC, who is based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.