Economic Necessity Drawing Turkey Closer to Saudis, Scholar Argues

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

“Investment-oriented relations” are driving the relationship after years of enmity. 

The deepening economic ties between Saudi Arabia and Turkey in recent months are signals of a new phase in the relationship between the two states, following years of restricted trade, mutual distrust, and outright disdain, a scholar tells Middle East Policy

“Both [Saudi] King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed [have] emphasized their expectations for further progress and prosperity in bilateral relations with the ‘brotherly’ people of Turkey,” said Hazal Muslu El Berni, who researches Gulf politics and Saudi foreign-policy making. 

Now that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has secured another five-year term as Turkish president, officials from his government have been working overtime to secure much-needed investment. Turkey has returned, El Berni says in a new analysis published in Middle East Policy, “to an era of investment-oriented relations with Saudi Arabia in an attempt to improve its damaged economy in the long term.” 

Late last week, Turkey conducted high-level talks with officials from Saudi Arabia and the UAE for defense and energy deals. And the interchange will likely go both ways: Earlier in the month, Saudi Aramco engaged in negotiations with Turkish contractors for the construction of infrastructure and other projects, deals that could be worth a combined $50 billion. 

In addition, just before the elections, the Saudi Fund for Development deposited $5 billion into Turkey’s central bank.  

The recent thaw between the two countries comes after years of turmoil. In her Summer 2023 article, El Berni examines the public stances of Saudi leaders and policy elites toward Turkey in the late 2010s and their effects on the bilateral relationship. She argues that an “imposition of top-down narratives reshaped the public discourse of Saudi elites and governmental institutions…reinforc[ing] the image of Turkey as a security threat.” 

The 2017 Gulf crisis, sparked when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed relations with Qatar, was an inflection point in the Saudi-Turkish relationship, as Ankara aligned with Doha. With this move, El Berni contends in her article, “Saudi decision makers saw further evidence of Turkey as a security threat due to the country’s unquestioned support for Qatar’s regional security and sovereignty.” 

Saudi Arabia’s securitization of Turkey, which El Berni defines as occurring “when state officials make decisions based on whether elite discourse labels some rivals as threats,” was largely economic, with boycotts of Turkish goods and reduced investment.  

A shift in regional dynamics, however, headlined by the Al-Ula agreement at the beginning of 2021, saw the enmity dissipate. Gulf states began to repair their relationships, and the Saudis reduced the temperature of their relationship with Turkey. “Both sides have already engaged in efforts to overcome the personalized relations, particularly after the transfer of the [Jamal] Khashoggi case to the Saudi authorities, which shifted the perception of Saudi decision-makers,” El Berni said in an email interview. 

Khashoggi was a journalist killed by Saudi agents in Istanbul. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially accused the Saudi crown prince of having “blood on his hands.” But when Turkey handed the case to the government in Riyadh, this eased the tensions, which shows, El Berni contends, “the weight of material conditions and the role of the domestic economic crisis in shaping Turkish foreign policy.” 

This has become far more important since 2021, when Turkey’s currency lost almost half its value. And since Erdogan’s re-election in May, the lira has slid precipitously

Riyadh’s awareness of “the Erdogan government’s economic needs…strengthens the kingdom’s hand in shaping the Turkish regional policies in accordance with Saudi Arabia,” El Berni told Middle East Policy.  


Among the major takeaways readers can find in El Berni’s Middle East Policy article: 

  • Relations between the two countries deteriorated as a result of the Arab Spring, Turkey’s siding with Qatar during the 2017 Gulf crisis, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. 

    • These events contributed to Saudi Arabia’s viewing Turkey as potentially threatening and untrustworthy, resulting in a process of securitization towards Ankara. 

  • Turkey sought to avoid escalation, with Erdogan conducting visits to Riyadh and condemning the actions of Houthi rebels against Saudi. 

  • The Saudi securitization discourse was largely in the economic sectors, resulting in boycotts of Turkish goods and divestment from business interests in the country. 

    • Social media also played a role, with state outlets issuing posts such as “#Boycott_Turkish_Products” and even articles headlined with “Turkey is not safe.” 

  • Changing regional dynamics in 2020 and 2021, including a resolution to the 2017 crisis, resulted in the Al-Ula Summit in January 2021, when Gulf states began rebuilding relationships. 

    • The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states emphasized their commitments to stability, unity, shared values, and peace. 

  • After the Al-Ula reconciliation, Saudi Arabia and Turkey began renewing their relationship, though the process was slowed by the fallout from the Khashoggi affair and Mohamed bin Salman’s displeasure with Turkey’s statements about the murder. 

  • Turkey’s recent economic woes have meant the focus of relations between the two states is investment oriented. 

    • One major example is Saudi’s recent announcement of a $5 billion deposit into Turkey’s central bank. 


You can read Hazal Muslu El Berni’s article, “The Negotiated Desecuritization of Turkey in Saudi Foreign Policy” in Middle East Policy. The article is free for all readers until July 16, regardless of whether they have a subscription to the journal. 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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