Muhammad Abdullah Bani Hamim
Political researcher at the International Institute for Iranian Studies
The Turkish leadership welcomed the restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran after a China-brokered deal in early March 2023. The deal resulted in a thaw in relations after a seven-year diplomatic breakup between the region’s two most powerful nations. What is remarkable about the Turkish statement on the restoration of ties — which were welcomed by most of the region’s countries, and the international community’s most prominent actors, to say the least — is the swift Turkish response and interaction with the Saudi-Iran agreement and the consequent regional developments that could arise from it as well as its impact on several outstanding issues. This is especially significant as the two nations stand out as Turkey’s most prominent rivals in the competition over regional leadership.
The Turkish posture welcoming the Saudi-Iran agreement raises important questions: to what extent is the Saudi-Iran agreement significant for Turkey? How is the deal viewed by Turkish policymakers in the context of the country’s interests in the Middle East, the extent of the competition among regional rivals and the map of regional balances and alliances with each of the agreement’s signatories?
The Turkish position welcoming the Saudi-Iran agreement takes into consideration several factors, chiefly driven by Ankara’s genuine desire to mend relations with its neighbors as well as with the region’s countries after they had been strained during the so-called Arab Spring uprisings and the subsequent turmoil in the region. Turkey has mended relations with the region’s key actors — Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt — and has reinstated its zero-problem policy foreign policy approach. Turkey views both parties to the conflict — Saudi Arabia and Iran — as regional heavyweights. Therefore, it has moved ahead with restoring confidence and improving ties with Saudi Arabia. Ankara also has shared interests with Iran, particularly in the economic domain. Thus, Turkey believes that it is in its interest to keep balanced relations with both countries while easing any potential escalation in the region, particularly at this delicate juncture following the earthquake that struck the country on February 6, 2023. The earthquake caused massive damage to the Turkish economy, prompting the country to channel its financial resources to reconstruct the hardest hit zones. Therefore, this natural disaster motivated Turkey to prioritize the goal of fostering stability in the region, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In addition, Turkey appears to want to adopt a different approach now in the context of its relations with Syria, taking advantage of the current international developments.
Turkey shares with the region’s countries, including Saudi Arabia, a host of ideas: that the region should be free of tensions and wars; that peace is the only way forward for prosperity and that the West has played a prominent role in fueling crises and rifts for the sake of political and economic gains at the expense of the region. The Saudi-Iran reconciliation lays out a new vision for regional security; therefore, it is supported by Turkey. This is because this agreement will enhance the forging of constructive alliances in the region. Saudi Arabia has an ambitious development project — Vision 2030 — which not only focuses on the kingdom but also the entire region, particularly for it to be free of disputes, tensions and terror. Additionally, Iran is experiencing tough conditions resulting from the international embargo imposed on it, the ongoing popular protests and deteriorating economic and living conditions. Iran needs Turkish investments which could play a pivotal role in easing the economic pressures inside the country.
The Turkish economy is at a similarly critical stage after the back-to-back economic crises that have gripped the country since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the depreciation of the local currency to an unprecedented level. This is in addition to the other economic problems it shares with regional countries such as runaway inflation. Hence, against this backdrop, Turkish foreign policy is driven by Ankara’s desire to safeguard its economic interests with Saudi Arabia. Saudi support, through injecting investments into Turkey, is indispensable, especially during hard times and in the context of the economic crisis that Turkey is currently experiencing. The Saudi Fund for Development deposited $5 billion in the Turkish Central Bank in March 2023 to boost the Turkish economy, a move praised by the Turkish government.
Iranian markets are a key arena for selling Turkish products and items. Turkey, on the other hand, is an important haven for Iranian capital that was targeted by Western sanctions on the Iranian regime. Thus, Turkey stands to benefit greatly from the Saudi-Iran agreement. Disagreements between Riyadh and Tehran will no longer harm Turkey’s interests. Furthermore, Turkey looks forward to the agreement assisting in resolving the Syrian crisis and creating the building blocks for the political process to move forward, allowing for the return of Syrian refugees who have placed a heavy burden on the Turkish economy. Stability will also reopen these two countries’ markets to Turkish exports and investments, helping to restore stability to the Turkish lira. Furthermore, the agreement will put an end to the region’s polarization and proxy wars. It also heralds the diminution of foreign influence. This will allow Turkey to play a larger role in the region alongside its competitors.
In conclusion, though Turkey views Iran and Saudi Arabia as rivals in the region, its welcoming of the Saudi-Iran agreement reveals how far it is deeply aware of the negative impacts of regional tensions and the importance of regional peace in stabilizing the political, economic and security situation. The Turkish reaction also signifies the realization that any positive progress on outstanding regional issues is important for its own strength and stability.
Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah