Last week Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia became the first Saudi Arabian leader to visit Turkey since 2003. On his four-day trip, he traveled all the way from Ankara to İstanbul, the third largest city in the country, and then on to Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria. According to the Royal Court, the crown prince’s entire itinerary “was thoroughly coordinated” by the Turkish authorities. “The crown prince of Saudi Arabia is the official guest of Turkey at a time when a host of crises has reared their heads,” the Saudi Embassy in Ankara said in a statement. “As an Islamic nation and a friend to the region, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is keen to combat terrorism, extremism and terrorism financing.”
This doesn’t seem like a deal-breaker in this part of the world. Crown Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman, have all but openly admitted that Saudi Arabia is at war with the majority of the United States’ regional allies over the last 18 months. They have been drawing a line between Iran and the United States, and by extension the rest of the world, for more than a decade now. They have staked their reputation on the U.S. alliance despite the promises that Donald Trump made before he took office. The crown prince last visited Turkey in 2017, when his father was still in power, to attend the funeral of the late Turkish President Adnan Menderes.
Last week’s visit to Istanbul means that just about any other U.S. ally can travel to Turkey without it drawing unwanted attention, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself. The question is: what value does it hold?
For a start, it can give a new level of depth to Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Since the fall of the U.S.-sponsored Iran deal a few years ago, most Turkish leaders have been eager to stand as the U.S. “glacier in the room,” a reference to the international people pushing back against the Trump administration. Even after Turkish protesters filmed Erdoğan on stage in New York last July accusing U.S. Vice President Mike Pence of being a “fifth column” for Israel, the Turkish leader took some steps to mend ties with the American leader. But there was little else the Turkish leader could do. After that debacle, some diplomats and politicians have openly asked how much more damage can be done to bilateral relations. The lack of a special relationship with Saudi Arabia is not only meant to pave the way for bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia to improve, it is a parallel safeguard in case it deteriorates once again.
This also helps to consolidate Turkey’s position as a regional leader against Iran, particularly at a time when Iran’s influence in the region is greatly growing. Iran-friendly politicians and states are becoming very prominent all over the region, and Turkey is looking for ways to distance itself from Iran. It is, in a sense, an attempt to reassure Iran that Turkey will not be its biggest rival in the region.
Yet the crown prince’s visit also shows how alienated Turkey has become from the U.S. in the region. The United States has spent billions of dollars in interventions to not only support the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq (and the Syrian Democratic Forces) in the hopes of curbing Iran’s regional influence, but also to attempt to bring stability to Syria, a country largely controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS). Despite this, Iran has strengthened its presence in Iraq and Syria in recent years. The United States’ plan to remove the Islamic State from Mosul failed, which was a strategic error. And the United States has since pulled out of Syria despite public warnings from Turkey and Saudi Arabia to leave the country. A big story about the crown prince’s visit that didn’t break last week was that the Trump administration has failed to consider Erdoğan’s way of fighting ISIS. In theory, the U.S. would have realized that fighting ISIS militarily from the air while letting terrorists from the ground take advantage of it would have been a disaster. However, now the U.S. is still in Iraq without offering an alternative solution.
Still, Saudi Arabia’s visit to Turkey is not about creating a “new relationship” with the United States. It is about cementing an old relationship with Turkey.