Against the backdrop of a floundering economy and deteriorating living standards for the vast majority of Turks, officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) opened the new year with a stream of reassuring messages to the public. The Turkish lira would stabilise, employment figures would rise, and investments and tourists from the Arab Gulf would return.
Indeed, before the end of 2021, gentler breezes had begun to arrive from the Arabian Peninsula following the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Al-Ula summit and the reconciliation with Qatar. Abu Dhabi restored relations with Ankara and, more crucially, after some intensive Turkish communications, the Saudi foreign minister issued a statement that his country’s relations with Turkey were “good and friendly.”
What this meant was that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had given Riyadh assurances that he would stop trying to vie with Saudi Arabia’s leadership for the Islamic world and that he had to rein in his support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups harboured in Turkey. Such ingratiation must have worked because he now pins great hopes on a visit to Saudi Arabia in February removing Riyadh’s last reservations over normalising relations with Ankara.
Back in Anatolia, opposition circles watch bemused as the government’s foreign policy attempts to backpedal back to the “zero problems” days of former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Not surprisingly, on social media the Turkish opposition is full of wry remarks about latest U-turn of their country’s self-styled Islamic leader and his cohorts who, not long ago, brandished photos of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and shouted battle cries contesting the Saudi royal house’s eligibility as Guardian of the Holy Places in Mecca and Medina.
Only two years ago, the AKP government organised an international event to commemorate the first anniversary of Khashoggi’s assassination. Before a gathering of “activists” - mostly foreigners who had received official invitations - a prominent adviser to the Turkish president suggested putting up a statue of the late Saudi journalist outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul so that “the civilised world would not forget how democracy was stabbed in the back.”
The event was aired live over most satellite TV stations. Ironically, no matter how the cameras were positioned, they could not conceal how thin the attendance was, or the fact that audience consisted mainly of foreigners. Where were the locals? Where were the representatives of the major opposition parties who had received phone calls pressing them to attend? The answer was simple: they did not want to lend themselves as props in a spectacle staged to promote a regime ranked as one of the world’s foremost jailers of journalists. Today they ask whether the event will be cancelled again in 2022, citing the pretext of the pandemic. More importantly, they wonder whether the government regrets having approved stationing a memorial plaque commemorating Khashoggi in front of the Saudi consulate and if so what it plans to do about it.
Erdogan’s official spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, told reporters on 4 January that Ankara would “accelerate normalisation steps” in the Arab region in 2022. He added, “We do not ignore the hand of anyone who reaches out to us. Whoever takes a friendly step towards us, we take two steps towards them.” This struck opposition circles as odd. After all, who was reaching their hand to whom and why?
“Amid an unofficial Saudi boycott of Turkish goods, Turkish exports to the kingdom plunged to a mere $189 million in the first 11 months of 2021, down from $2.5 billion in 2020 and $3.2 billion in 2019,” writes Fehim Tastekin in Al Monitor of 7 January. “Saudi sales to Turkey, meanwhile, hit a record $3 billion in the first 11 months of 2021, up from $1.7 billion in 2020 and $1.9 billion in 2019.”
Turkish exporters had reportedly pressed Erdogan about their concerns over the Saudi boycott on the sidelines of a trade event in Istanbul. In response, he told them about the forthcoming visit in February. Although this was said to be an inadvertent slip, the news had its desired affect.
However, as Tastekin observes, in practical terms, Erdogan will have to make amends with the kingdom’s ruler Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman whom Ankara has repeatedly insinuated was personally behind Khashoggi’s murder. Still, if Erdogan’s visit to Saudi Arabia goes ahead as planned in February, bin Salman will not have to tell him to drop the Khashoggi affair. For the Turkish president, desperate to stimulate exports and lure investments to salvage Turkey’s ailing economy, that is automatically implied.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.