Could Turkey and Saudi Arabia build a resilient alliance?


Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been able to overlook pre-existing differences and form a pact strengthening rebel groups in Syria, but is this alliance likely to be long-lasting?

Erdoğan and King Salman bin Abdulaziz

Although both countries previously carried negative perceptions of one another with bilateral relation being distant for decades, since the 1970s the relationship between Turkey, a democracy and Saudi-Arabia, a conservative kingdom, has somewhat improved. Both countries have recently been able to experience good economic relations with political leaders from both sides having come together to sign numerous agreements. Friendly relations have been shown through Saudi Arabia’s initiative to set up an embassy in Ankara and Turkey’s initiative to set up an embassy in Riyadh.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are both full members of the World Trade Organization, which deals with rules of trade between countries – ensuring trade flows smoothly. They are both also full members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is “the collective voice of the Muslim world”, that works to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world”. Both countries have maintained mutual high-level visits and a High Level Strategic Dialogue Mechanism, which was established in 2008 between Turkey and the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC), to develop existing positive relations between Turkey and GCC countries.

However, in spite of official diplomatic agreements and improvements in relations, since the 2011 Arab Spring movement, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been slightly at odds, especially in regards to the status of the Muslim Brotherhood around the Middle East. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been a strong supporter of the Brotherhood, and expressed sentiments against the coup that forced Egypt’s elected Brotherhood government out of office. Saudi Arabia on the other hand does not support the Muslim Brotherhood and considers it a threat to rule at home, which was proven by the billions of dollars Saudi Arabia sent in aid to Egypt after the 2013 coup.

Nonetheless, both countries have been able to overcome differences in the face of common interests and form a pact that focuses on their mutual goals to end the rule of Assad along with the current civil war in Syria. Turkey has long been implicated by the depths of the Syrian crisis and fears that violence so close to home to could end up spilling over into turkey. The pact between Turkey and Saudi Arabia was confirmed in May 2015 after both countries grew increasingly impatient with the Obama administration’s policy in the area, which both countries believe has no coherent strategy for ending the rule of Assad.

Although Turkey and Saudi Arabia are currently cooperating in their dealings with Syria, it is questionable whether they will continue to cooperate with one another after their shared goals have been accomplished. Differences between the two countries have already shown up in their methods towards tackling Assad, with Turkey favouring more Islamist rebel groups in Syria and Saudi Arabia favouring more nationalist rebel groups.

The alliance could also threaten Turkey’s relationship with other countries such as Iran who share a strained relationship with Saudi Arabia. Iran has questioned the relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and worries that because of the alliance, Turkey will struggle to maintain a balanced relationship with both Iran and Saudi Arabia simultaneously.