Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman meet

By Nick Cumming-Bruce

BBC News Middle East Bureau Chief

The prospects for peace may have been damaged by Donald Trump’s plans for a Middle East ‘deal of the century’ President Tayyip Erdogan and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are in each other’s company in an international summit that has gripped the region. Turkish-Saudi relations began to thaw shortly after President Erdogan was elected in 2014. Turkish lira. Picture taken May 12, 2016.

Erdogan himself insists that ties with Riyadh are “special”, unlike those with other Muslim countries. But it’s a fragile friendship for two people who, like their countries, are both at their best in crisis. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy; Turkey is a constitutional republic. So there is no heir apparent to a charismatic regime like the one in Riyadh. The Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is taking a very modern view of what that means – “managing” not “managing” crisis. We’ve seen this previously with Mohammed bin Nayef – king since 2015 and protector of the royals. Now, the model is being transferred to the heir apparent: the impulsive 32-year-old Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Whatever the outcome of his time in London, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman must take far more care about his security than Nayef did. The most important debate at the summit is over how to address the threats that both countries face. After years of a confrontation over Syria, Turkish-Saudi relations are warming because both have worries. This would be another good opportunity to get serious about reducing the danger from the Islamic State. But the Trump administration’s decision to withhold the release of money pledged in 2016 doesn’t improve matters. It’s in the interests of Erdogan and the Saudis to show that a closer relationship is being built, even if the tensions are not officially over the same issues. Turkey is a Nato member, which means that the Saudis have access to the Turkish air force, bases and training. Turkish-Saudi relations may be good, but one can imagine negotiations in future. Both countries have massive internal problems. Saudis are concentrated in the towns and cities, the Turks in the provinces. Two EU-candidate countries, both experiencing unrest and tension from Kurdish separatism, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are not only more vulnerable to external developments – they are also less able to influence them. It would be naive to underestimate the risks from talking so much about two countries that don’t even like each other. Turkey still has enemies in the Gulf, including the Yemenis, Iran and Syria. But the Saudis seem to be working to bring them on side. As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, “With regard to issues between the two countries, we put them aside, knowing there is no problem with Turkey”. When the Saudis have problems, they do much better with their American friends. General Joseph Votel’s comments on the stability of Saudi Arabia suggest that Washington is ignoring Turkey for the moment – and Saudi Arabia is listening. It’s in everyone’s interests that the current talks between Turkish and Saudi leaders succeed. What message will all this send to the other targets in the war on terrorism? “We could do worse than to say, ‘the Turks and the Saudis are back together'”, says a veteran foreign affairs analyst in Turkey. “As long as we are clear that we have this fragile link and we want to take care of it as much as possible, then the other side, the United States, won’t take our progress for granted. “And that could give us something very positive in the Middle East – if it’s handled properly.” Nick Cumming-Bruce is the BBC’s Middle East Bureau Chief in Ankara.

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