Turkish-Saudi alliance in place
On Feb 28, 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became one of the first regional leaders to visit Riyadh to hold extensive talks with Saudi Arabia’s new leader, King Salman, who was crowned in January of that year. Since then, the relationship between the two countries has shown a steady progress through consecutive high-level talks.
Erdoğan made another trip to the Saudi Kingdom in late December 2015, which was followed by prime ministerial and foreign ministerial visits that helped elevate the level of ties to a more strategic category.
A high-level strategic cooperation council established between the two countries created new areas of collaboration, especially in the fields of military, defense, trade and foreign policy.
King Salman’s visit to Turkey can be seen as a follow-up to this process of forming a strong alliance and further aligning the foreign policy priorities of Ankara and Riyadh.
So it is not a coincidence that Ankara has decided to decorate King Salman with Turkey’s highest state medal in recognition of the close ties between the two countries, just a year since the Saudi leader took the throne.
However, this reunion in Ankara is more about regional and international policies than bilateral preoccupations.
First, King Salman arrived in Ankara after a five-day trip to Egypt, where he renewed the long-lasting alliance between Cairo and Riyadh.
Second, his visit comes on the occasion of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) summit, to take place in Istanbul on April 14 and 15 with the participation of around 30 leaders of from different Islamic countries, including Iranian President Hasan Rouhani.
Third, these events coincide with the international community’s efforts to find the best military ways to further degrade the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in northern Syria by creating an ISIL-free zone over a 98 kilometer-long border strip between Mare and Jarablus.
Fourth, it is surely now time to decide the fate of the cessation of hostilities between the forces of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. This will have a deep impact on U.N.-led efforts to find an agreement between the regime and opposition groups under the Geneva process.
It is no secret that Saudi Arabia is in favor of reconciliation between Turkey and Egypt and has been conducting efforts to mediate. Egyptian Foreign Minister Hassan Shoukry will represent Cairo at the OIC summit and many hope that this will set in motion a process of normalization between the two countries.
On Syria and the anti-ISIL fight, there seems to be convergence between Ankara and Riyadh, as both are staunchly against the continuation of al-Assad’s rule in Syria. Saudi Arabia’s deployment of four warplanes to the İncirlik Air Base in southern Turkey is a clear demonstration of its willingness to take an active part in efforts to degrade the jihadists in Syria. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have long been active in building a contingency consisting of Arab-Turkmen moderate groups as an alternative to U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish groups and their military wings.
Saudi King Salman’s talks with his Turkish counterparts as well as other Islamic countries that will join the OIC summit in Istanbul will surely have an impact on the unrest in Syria. Of course, there is also speculation that the summit will revisit a Saudi plan to create an “Islamic army” to unite all Islamic countries in the shape of a so-called Islamic NATO.