Sinem Cengiz, Turkish-Saudi Relations: Cooperation and Competition in the Middle East (Gerlach Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sinem Cengiz (SC): My inspiration to write this book was both personal and academic. Firstly, I was born in Kuwait and have spent many years of my life living there. Having grown up in a Gulf country which had experienced an invasion and later a crisis at its doorstep, for me it was impossible to focus on any other region. I had developed a kind of personal and intellectual stake in Kuwait in particular, and the Gulf in general. I can never forget those moments when we had to stay indoors in “safe rooms” for weeks amid the sirens alerting us of a possible Iraqi missile attack in early 2003. When we had to suddenly leave Kuwait to Turkey by land, I also had to leave behind all my memories in a country, which, at least psychologically, was at war again. I started my graduate school in Turkey and my aim was to study what I had observed and experienced during my stay in the Gulf.

Secondly, the book grew out of my deep interest in improving my understanding of Turkish-Gulf relations. The seeds for this book were sown in the late 2011 while the region was swept out with the uprisings (the so-called “Arab Spring”). I was both a journalist covering stories in post-uprising countries in the Middle East and a graduate student researching on Gulf affairs. When I decided to write my thesis on Turkish-Saudi relations, I was both surprised and disappointed to see that there was not any book-length treatment of the topic in English, Turkish, or Arabic—despite the growing relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s. To date, there is still no book on this particular topic. My study, to a large extent, was intended to respond to this gap. Whether my book will be successful remains to be seen, but most importantly I did not want other researchers to face the same difficulties that I had.

The primary research for this manuscript started in Ankara and Jeddah, but developed in Athens and Kuwait, and its final preparations took place in Istanbul during the tough months when the world was challenged by the global pandemic, Covid-19.

Due to the difficulty of  carrying out journalism, academic studies, and an embassy job at the same time, I had to delay the publication of this work for many years. The rapidly changing dynamics in the region contributed to this delay. However, better late than never!

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SC: In addition to analysis of source material and related academic work, this book is a product of my fieldwork. I not only examined documents, such as agreements, protocols, and joint declarations between two countries, but I also conducted in-depth interviews with people who had the knowledge, experience, and insider information about the topic. When I visited Saudi Arabia in 2014 and 2018, it was not the best times for Turkish-Saudi relations due to the two states’ divergence over Egypt and Qatar. Yet I was lucky to have sincere discussions with Saudi officials, journalists, and academics who aimed, like me, to contribute to Turkish-Saudi relations.

My book strives to make a modest contribution to the literature on Turkish-Saudi relations, covering bilateral relations between these two countries on three levels—domestic, regional, and international—and offering a sound understanding of their respective foreign policies in the region.

The book is split into three parts. The first part analyzes the bilateral relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, shedding light on the domestic political developments in the two countries during those years and the influence of domestic politics on the process of foreign policy making. The impact of regional and international factors, such as the First Gulf War and the post-Cold War era, on Turkish-Saudi relations are also scrutinized.

The second part covers the domestic transformations in Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the 2000s and takes a closer look at their impact on bilateral relations between Ankara and Riyadh. Chapters developing these themes begin with the change brought to Turkish foreign policy with the emergence of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the changes in Saudi foreign policy during the reign of King Abdullah. This is followed by a discussion on the impact of 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the relationship. So as not to bore the reader with mere political developments, I also included some chapters on the role of Turkish soap operas and Ottoman heritage in this relationship.

The third part covers post-2010 developments, such as the Arab uprisings and their impact on Turkish-Saudi policies, as well as the Turkish model in the Middle East and the rise and demise of its popularity. This part, most importantly, reviews the current conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Turkey and delves into the issues of competition between two countries through three main cases of study: the Gulf crisis, the Khashoggi case, and the Kurdish issue. It also touches upon the international context influenced by the US presidency eras of both Obama and Trump, and examines both countries’ relations with rising non-Western powers, such as Russia and China.

The book looks at the multiple challenges confronting the two countries and the reasons behind their responses to a series of regional issues. The conclusion provides a summary, together with responses to the questions posed during the study and predictions regarding the future of the Turkish-Saudi relationship. 

J: What were the most difficult and the most enjoyable elements of your research for the project?

SC: The most enjoyable element of my research was by far my two journeys, both from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, during which I developed solid friendships and memories. As for the most difficult part, I should admit it is not always easy to access people for interviews, especially at times of tension. Also, researching a topic with a scarce literature was particularly challenging. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

SC: This is my first book and an extension of my master’s thesis and journalistic interest on Turkish-Gulf affairs. Hopefully, it will also be a foundation for future topics I plan to work on.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SC: I believe the book’s publication was very timely, during a period when, more than ever, Turkish-Saudi relations are relevant. My sincere hope, of course, is that the book will be a key primer on Turkish-Saudi relations and will reach academics, policy experts, and a more general audience—particularly those with an interest in Turkish and Saudi politics in the region. I would like for it to be read by students of area studies and, specifically, Middle Eastern studies. I also aim to see this book published in Arabic or Turkish. If those who aim to develop literature on Turkish-Saudi relations take my book as a reference point, my purpose would have been achieved.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SC: As a PhD candidate in area studies, I am currently writing my dissertation, which follows similar themes as this book. Hopefully, I will later work to produce a book manuscript based on my dissertation, which I would like to be another contribution to the literature on Turkish-Gulf relations. I am also working on a couple of peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, in addition to my weekly columns at Arab News.


Excerpt from the book  (from the Introduction, pp. 1-2, 9-10)

The international relations of the states in the Middle East has become a crucial subject for analysis as the dynamics in the region have rapidly changed since the Arab uprisings that began in late 2010. The main purpose of this book is to examine the relationship between the Middle East’s two prominent heavyweights, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, by taking into account the domestic, regional and international dynamics that have had an impact on their relations in the 1990s and the 2000s. Examining the course of Turkish-Saudi relations is significant due to the fact that these two countries are among the most – if not the most – influential actors in the region, and they thus play crucial roles in shaping the balance of power. The nature of their relationship, whether friends or foes, has region-wide repercussions, affecting the situation in the Middle East and the calculations of regional and global actors. Research into Turkish-Saudi relations raises a difficult question: Is the cooperation or competition between these two countries due to regional instability, or is it the result of such an instability? This book argues that if regional developments are related to balance of power, two countries find a common ground for cooperation. However, if the nature of the regional developments is about ideology, two countries engage in competition for influence based on their differing worldviews. Although domestic differences (ideological and nationalistic views) serve to analyze the competitive nature of two states’ relationship, a comprehensive understanding cannot be grasped without taking into account the regional and international dynamics where the United States, Russia and China remain as the most powerful actors. Turkish-Saudi relations did not form in a vacuum, rather the regional and international dynamics played a crucial role in its evolution.

Hence, this book intends to familiarize the reader with the wholly new dynamics in the Middle East presented by the vigorous efforts of two of its most important local powers to establish dominance over the region through a nuanced, comprehensive viewpoint that includes the domestic factors in each country, and how these have interacted with regional and international factors. While examining these factors, the book particularly stresses that the nature of the dynamics is crucial in determining the approaches of the two countries toward each other. In this regard, the research question of this project should be seen as to identify which factors facilitated the relations and which factors limited them, and to determine to what extent these factors affected Turkish-Saudi relations during the years of the 1990s and the 2000s. The book adopts a detailed examination of the state of relations between the two countries, in the light of this background information and of current developments. The book follows an approach analyzing the chronology of events and identifying important timelines to trace the relationship between two countries, focusing mainly on three crucial eras: the last decade of the twentieth century (1990s), pre-Arab uprisings (early 2000s) and post-Arab uprisings (2010s). The first two eras aim to provide a brief overview of the history of Turkish-Saudi relations in the hope that it will give the reader a better understanding of the dynamics shaping the region today. While the last era is particularly significant since it was when volatile changes took place in the region where Ankara and Riyadh adopted a more assertive foreign policy that mainly clashed, in the post-uprisings era, three developments are identified as the turning points in the relationship: the 2013 coup in Egypt, the 2017 Qatari crisis, and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Turkish-Saudi relations cannot be better described than with the metaphor of a roller-coaster. Relations between Ankara and Riyadh have displayed numerous “ups” and “downs”, particularly over the past five decades. While the 1970s and 1980s saw the ups in the relations with occasional fluctuations, the 1990s hit rock bottom. The 2000s again witnessed the ups, but 2010s had its downs. It is a matter of curiosity even for the author of this book to see the course of relations in the 2020s. In order to understand the roots of the developing relations between the two countries in the early 2000s, where we could see high-level mutual visits taking place between the two countries as well as increasing cooperation on regional issues, this book begins by covering the course of Turkish-Saudi relations during the 1990s. Turkey and Saudi Arabia had different (in some cases, opposing) perspectives with regards to regional issues since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. However, they were able to manage these differences through different tools of dialogue until the onset of the Arab uprisings which brought to the surface their conflicting policies. Arab uprisings happened to be a litmus test for Turkish-Saudi relations, and eventually, their relationship lost the momentum it had gained in early 2000s. The honeymoon that Ankara and Riyadh enjoyed during the 2000s has ended bitterly with the Arab uprisings that started at the end of 2010.


Although Ankara and Riyadh enhanced their cooperation in the Syrian crisis, in which the two countries sought the fall of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, the ousting of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi by a military coup in 2013, led to the straining of Turkish-Saudi relations. Morsi was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood (hereafter MB), a religio-political movement which originated in Egypt but swiftly established branches in several countries, and was Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian president after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Turkey and Saudi Arabia adopted differing stances in the Egyptian crisis — with the former supporting the MB, and the latter backing military intervention. Riyadh’s stance was very much related to its concern about popular appeal and the success of the MB in the region. For Riyadh, the Pan-Islamist group represents an ideological and political threat to its regime survival. So, the Turkish leadership’s staunch support of the MB movement put the two countries at odds, while also putting at risk the political and economic investments the two countries had developed over the last decade.

The two countries have held different approaches and motivations toward the outcomes of the Arab uprisings since 2011 and have exerted their influence in the region through different tools. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud’s coming to power in 2015 and the rising role of his son Mohammed bin Salman, known colloquially as MbS, during his tenure, have all played a considerable role in evolution of Turkish- Saudi relations, in a mostly adverse way. The Gulf crisis that started in mid-2017 between Qatar and the Saudi-led quartet, once again, has brought to the surface the policy differences of these two countries. While Saudi Arabia led the campaign against the blockade of Qatar, Turkey stood by its long-time ally. Both states have stakes in the Gulf crisis that have significant implications for their regional policies. The underlying causes of the opposing stances of the two countries have deeper roots and three levels of analysis are needed to understand these dynamics fully. The last part of this book also emphasises how Turkish and Saudi regional and domestic concerns were entangled with a changing international environment. The increasing rift between Saudi Arabia and the US during the Barack Obama era, and Turkey’s straining of relations with the US during Donald Trump’s tenure and how the change in the US presidency had impacted the regional calculations of Ankara and Riyadh will be analyzed accordingly. This section explains how subsequent events forced Turkey and Saudi Arabia into a complicated diplomatic relationship, the nature of which has become increasingly competitive. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are among the competing actors for regional dominance. According to Flames, a regional power is distinguished by four main criteria: the claim to leadership, control of powerful resources, successful employment of foreign policy tools, and acceptance of leadership by other actors in the region. This study also exposes shortcomings and strengths of Turkish and Saudi policies to assume regional power status in a region where global powers such as the US, Russia and China as well as other regional actors such as Iran and Israel are very much present.