Since Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Riyadh in 2015, bilateral trade and investment have steadily increased. Hundreds of Turkish companies operate in the Kingdom, with well over $1 billion in investments. The value of Saudi investments in Turkey is estimated at nearly $2 billion. Bilateral trade is valued at about $8 billion.
But the strategic bond between the two nations goes beyond commercial ties. King Salman was one of the first world leaders to voice his support to Erdogan following the failed coup attempt against him last year. Saudi Arabia also bases some of its warplanes in Turkey’s Incirlik air base as part of its participation in the international coalition to defeat Daesh.
King Salman’s visit to Turkey in April 2016 demonstrated the personal rapport between the two leaders, and underscored the common security threats they face from extremist groups, such as Daesh. Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions are also a concern for Ankara. When Erdogan visited King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in February this year, Syria and regional security were at the forefront of their discussion.
The regional crisis brought on by Qatar has the potential to weigh heavily on the partnership between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, given Ankara’s recent call for the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) to end its boycott of Doha. That said, there is a strong realization by Turkey that as a powerful and influential Sunni Muslim country, it would not be in its best interest to sour relations with Saudi Arabia.
The strategic depth Ankara gains by working in harmony with the Saudi-led Anti-Terror Quartet is in the long-term interest of the region.
The strategic depth Ankara gains by working in harmony with the Saudi-led ATQ is in the long-term interest of the region. Given that Turkey has first-hand experience of the chaos that outside interference in its internal affairs can lead to, it should be naturally sympathetic to the ATQ’s concerns over Qatari support for destabilizing interference in internal Arab affairs.
The threat of extremists is a major domestic concern for Turkey, as Istanbul and other cities have witnessed a wave of attacks in the past year. Cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the ATQ against the scourge of terror financing and countering extremist ideology is obviously beneficial to all parties. Erdogan is also uniquely positioned to be able to place additional pressure on Qatar to comply with the ATQ’s demands if he so chooses.
As for the Iranian threat, it is now closer than ever to Turkey’s borders as thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their extremist proxy militias advance throughout Syria. Tehran benefits the most if there are divisions between the two most powerful Sunni-majority states in the region.
Hopefully differences with Turkey on Qatar can be worked out through respectful bilateral channels. Erdogan’s visit to Riyadh this week will hopefully prove to be a signal of continued cooperation and unity. This partnership must endure if the line is to hold against extremists, their benefactors and the malign Iranian aggression that threatens us all.
• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.