After Qatar reconciled with its Gulf neighbours at the start of this year, chief among them Saudi Arabia, an almost four-year blockade came to an end. It was perhaps inevitable that talk of reconciliation between Qatar’s ally Turkey and Riyadh would follow. As a precursor to such a warming of ties, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Salman Bin Abdulaziz spoke on the telephone in November before the Saudis hosted the G20 Summit. Both leaders are reported to have agreed to “keep channels of dialogue open”.
Ties between the two countries have deteriorated since 2013 following the Kingdom’s support for the military coup in Egypt; they went downhill even faster when Ankara chose to side with Qatar when the Gulf crisis started with the blockade of the small Gulf State in 2017. Relations reached their lowest point with the 2018 state-sanctioned murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Despite being on a similar page as Turkey initially when it came to the conflict in Syria — both supported the opposition against the President Bashar Al-Assad — the Saudis under de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman have since taken a more conciliatory approach with Damascus. They are in agreement with calls made by Egypt and the UAE for the war-torn country to return to the Arab League, a move which looks increasingly likely following the visit of a high-level Syrian delegation to neutral Oman earlier this week.
Backing opposite sides in Libya has also been a bone of political contention between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkey’s decision to take a more active role in the conflict saw it come out on top against Saudi ambitions and, to an even greater extent, those of the UAE.
On the economic front, the Kingdom imposed an informal boycott on Turkish imports last year, which fell to a record low in January. Nevertheless, there are early signs of a shift in attitudes. Last week, Erdogan revealed that the Saudis have expressed interest in purchasing Turkish-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for military use. These drones have thus far served Ankara’s interests well in both Libya and Syria, as well as in the brief war last year in Nagorno-Karabakh, where they gave Azerbaijan the tactical edge over Armenia.
It has now been reported that two Saudi arms firms will be co-producing Turkish-made Karayel-SU drones under licence, although the deal dates back to 2017. Riyadh also announced last month that it intends to invest $20 billion in its domestic arms industry over the next decade as it seeks to become less reliant on the US.
“There is no reason for Turkey not to mend ties with Saudi Arabia,” said Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu two weeks ago. “If it takes a positive step, we will do so as well.” The same goes for the UAE, he was reported to have said by Anadolu.If reconciliation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia is on course, it is following a trajectory similar to Turkey-Egypt diplomatic developments. It will be interesting to see how this will affect the US-backed, Saudi-led war in Yemen, which is now entering its seventh year.
Turkey recognises the legitimacy of the Yemeni government-in-exile headed by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, as do Riyadh and the international community. Yet this administration is a puppet government working not for the interests and aspirations of Yemeni independence and self-determination, but to maintain the decades-old, exploitative status quo, with Saudi Arabia as the primary beneficiary.
The Houthi-led National Salvation Government based in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, which also administers the country’s most densely populated areas in the northern highlands, arguably holds more legitimacy and power, despite only being recognised by Iran and Syria on the international stage. However, the Saudi-backed forces occupy most of Yemen, although these are sparsely populated in comparison and mostly the desert flatlands. The NSG was established two years after the Houthi movement, allied with most of the Yemeni Army, seized the capital in 2014 in what is known as the 21 September Revolution.
This time last year, I also wrote about the war, which had just witnessed strategic advances in Al-Jawf province in the north. Much of the ongoing Saudi war effort on the ground relies on the pro-coalition stronghold of Marib city. This, I argued, would be defended fiercely because the stakes were simply too high, but should it fall to the Houthi-supported Yemeni armed forces, it would effectively mark a decisive turning point in the war and an almost certain defeat for the Saudis and the “internationally-recognised” government.
The battle for Marib still rages and has been the primary focus of the Sanaa authorities. Moreover, the official spokesperson for the Houthi movement, Mohammad Abdulsalam, said yesterday that the Marib campaign will not even be part of any potential negotiation framework which, judging by the recent rejection of the Saudi “peace plan”, will not take place until all of the sieges imposed across the country by the coalition are ended completely and its daily acts of aggression also stop. The latest significant advance in Marib province has been the partial control of the Marib Dam, which is close to the ruins of the ancient Great Dam of Marib, associated with the Queen of Sheba. “[The Houthis] took control of Mount Hilan overlooking the city, after fighting which left dozens of dead and wounded on both sides,” reported AFP last week.
I have previously addressed speculation that Turkey is already involved to some degree in Yemen and that its support for the Islah militia — which is already backed by the Saudis — would be a setback for the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC). Should Ankara and Riyadh reconcile, it would not be implausible for Turkish support for pro-Hadi forces to become more apparent. In both Libya and Azerbaijan, it has been well-documented that Turkey transferred Syrian mercenaries to the conflict zones. There have already been unconfirmed reports this month that Turkey is now doing the same in Marib, with the pro-Syrian government news outlet Shaam Times reporting that 300 Syrian fighters have joined the ranks of the Islah militia.
However, Turkish drones were the game-changers in Libya and Azerbaijan, and the Saudi keenness to obtain them reveals Riyadh’s desperation as the war continues to progress in favour of the Houthis. According to some accounts, Turkish drones have already been used in Yemen. The pro-Houthi military spokesperson, Brigadier General Yahya Saree, announced earlier this month that the Yemeni Army shot down a “Karayel reconnaissance drone” owned and operated by the Saudi-led coalition “while it was carrying out hostile missions in the airspace of Al-Marazeeq area” in Al-Jawf province. This was overlooked by the mainstream media, and yet it is the third of its kind to have been downed by the Houthi forces; the first was shot down in the western province of Hudaydah in late 2019, and the second was in January, also over Al-Marazeeq.
Politically and ultimately where it matters most, any Turkish intervention will be futile, not only because of the Houthis’ increasingly flexible arms industry, but also due to their political will and resolve. Furthermore, the Hadi government has faced yet another humiliation with the storming of the Presidential Palace in its interim capital of Aden, forcing the Hadi prime minister to flee back to Riyadh.
There are also voices in Saudi Arabia and Turkey saying that this war is simply not winnable. Saudi Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed, for example, recently opined that Bin Salman has lost the war already, having failed to secure the quick victory that he initially envisioned, and has only created an unprecedented humanitarian disaster instead. “The Houthis are now on the offensive and are unlikely to retreat or surrender. It is most likely that they will continue their offensive in Marib and sweep the shrinking territories and fragile authority of the Riyadh-based exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.”
Writing in Yeni Safak newspaper, Turkish columnist Ibrahim Karagul agrees: “Saudi Arabia will lose the Yemen war. It will reach the brink of destruction.”
Whether or not Turkey and Saudi normalise relations in the near future, there is still an opportunity for Turkey and the rest of the world to be on the right side of history and to help bring this bloody conflict to an end. That, though, will require recognition of the National Salvation Government as the legitimate government of Yemen. Such recognition is long overdue.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.