Prince Saud Al Faisal, left, visited Turkey's foreign minister in Ankara in January. (Courtesy Reuters)

Last month, Saudi Arabia rolled out the red carpet for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The visit was yet another example of the degree to which relations between the two countries have improved in recent years.

Historically, the two nations have not been friendly, with economic relations only developing  in the 1970s. Turkey needed Saudi Arabia's oil. For its part, Saudi Arabia needed Turkey's huge construction sector to build its modern cities. In the 1990s, the arms-length relationship grew more distant. After the Persian Gulf War, Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Syria, banded together in hopes of creating a new Arab order. Damascus, no ally of Ankara at the time, was able to frame many of its narrow fights with Turkey as pan-Arab concerns. Down the Euphrates from Turkey, for example, Syria was locked in constant argument with the Turkish government over how much water it would allow to flow downstream. Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria even launched a successful campaign to end World Bank funding for Turkey's dam projects until Ankara signed a water agreement with the states below it. 

The United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003 changed all that. The toppling of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent empowerment of Iraqi Shias instilled a fear in the kingdom that Saudi's own Shia population would agitate for change. Beyond that, Riyadh believed that Iran -- through its activities in Iraq, its alliance with Syria, its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and its nascent nuclear program -- was attempting to become a regional hegemon. In response, Riyadh began building alliances with states that shared its outlook, a "Sunni axis," so to speak, to combat the "Shia arc."

Jordan and Egypt were natural fits. These predominantly Sunni countries were equally concerned with rising Iranian influence in the Levant and were determined to counter what they perceived as Tehran's outsized influence in the region. Yet Riyadh went a step further and aimed to also enlist Turkey. As an important regional power, a member of NATO, and predominantly Sunni, Saudi Arabia saw Ankara as a valuable bulwark against Iran. Riyadh would normally be worried about a non-Arab power's presence in the region undermining its own position, but it considered Turkey a lesser evil compared to Iran.

Thus, in 2006, Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud became the first Saudi monarch to visit Turkey in decades. That was followed by another visit in 2007. The next year, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, started a strategic dialogue about Iran. In the years after, Saudi-Turkish economic relations flourished. In 2011, trade between the two reached approximately $5 billion per year. Turkish construction companies continued to break ground in Saudi Arabia, and the number of Saudi tourists to Turkey reached 84,000 in 2010.

Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey was also interested in the status of Sunnis in Iraq, although less out of sectarian concern than a desire to keep Iraq unified. Turkey believed that the rise of the Shias and spiraling violence in Iraq would eventually result in the country's division along ethnic lines. And if northern Iraq became a separate Kurdish state, Ankara feared, Turkish Kurds might want to join it. Turkey, too, wanted to tamp down Iran's regional ambitions. Yet, while Ankara was keen to Riyadh's overtures, it had no interest in becoming a central pillar of a new Sunni axis in the Middle East. On the contrary, as part of its "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy, Turkey wanted to counter Iranian power in the region through soft balancing. Specifically, Ankara would undermine Tehran's influence in Palestinian politics and its dominance in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria by getting closer to those states itself.

So, even as Ankara pursued better relations with Saudi Arabia, it continued to engage Iran, especially on the development of Tehran's nuclear program. Whereas Saudi Arabia saw a potential Iranian bomb as a major threat and wanted to prevent it by any means possible, Turkey believed the matter could be resolved through negotiations. As early as 2009, many in Saudi Arabia were growing suspicious of what they saw as Turkey's double dealing. Although Riyadh continued its policy of cooperating with Turkey, especially on Iraq, it also realized that Turkey would not be a close part of the alliance it had constructed with Egypt and Jordan.

Then came the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia was uneasy with 2011's outpouring of people power from the start, lest it flow into the kingdom as well. First, when Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, he and his family were welcomed in Saudi Arabia. Then, Riyadh worked to prevent the toppling of the Hosni Mubarak regime, its ally in Egypt, but to no avail. It did, however, manage to help put down the Shia uprising against the Sunni government in neighboring Bahrain. It was only Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's downfall that Saudi Arabia welcomed. Saudi-Syrian relations had been quite problematic under Qaddafi, who was once even accused of trying to assassinate Saudi King Abdullah. Turkey, of course, took the opposite tack, supporting all the uprisings, with some initial hesitation in Libya. Ankara consistently called on the region's beleaguered regimes to respond to the demands of the people, or else step down. The two countries' diverging positions seemed to undermine hope that their strategic relationship could ever be solidified.

Then the Arab Spring reached Syria. The uprising there seemed like it might put Turkish-Saudi rapprochement back on track. Riyadh believes that the toppling of the Bashar al-Assad regime would limit Iran's influence in the Arab world, since Syria is the Islamic Republic's only Arab ally. Thus, last summer, Abdullah became the first Arab leader to criticize the Syrian regime openly; since then, Saudi Arabia has been actively supporting the Syrian opposition, including by advocating that the world arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main opposition military force.

At first, Turkey attempted to convince Assad to reform. Last summer, believing those efforts were at a dead end, Turkey adopted a more critical position. Ankara called for regime change in Syria, actively backed the opposition, criticized the UN Security Council for inaction, and supported creating buffer zones and humanitarian corridors between Turkey and Syria. Turkey also houses one of the biggest opposition groups, Syrian National Council, as well as the FSA.

Although Saudi Arabia and Turkey share a common goal in Syria, there are some tensions between their positions. First, for Turkey, managing the Syrian crisis is not a way to limit Iranian influence; instead, it is a means of protecting Turkey from chaos on its southern border. Refugees have already started flooding into Turkey -- and the longer the conflict drags on, the larger the burden Ankara will have to shoulder. Further, the influence of the Turkish Kurdish party on some Syrian Kurds is worrisome for Ankara.

Moreover, the Saudi and Turkish visions for post-Assad Syria differ. Saudi Arabia advocates a Sunni Islamist regime and is establishing ties with the more radical elements in the country. Turkey, on the other hand, favors the participation of all actors. Ankara is engaging and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, while also pressuring the group to accept a more participatory and representative Syria to prevent civil war in the post-revolution era.

In the meantime, Saudi Arabia's involvement in Syria threatens to undermine Turkey's "zero problems" foreign policy. Saudi Arabia is already casting the conflict in Syria as a sectarian one. Thus, Ankara's close cooperation with Riyadh -- and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood -- places Turkey squarely within the so-called Sunni camp. Such a development would limit Turkey's soft power in the region. In other words, although opportunities for rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Turkey arise from time to time, there are hard limitations to their relationship. They want different things in the region, and have different policies for getting them. On the other hand, as long as there are clear economic benefits in this bilateral relationship, both sides will gloss over their differences as long as they can.

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  • MELIHA BENLI ALTUNISIK is Professor of International Relations and Dean of the Graduate School of Social Sciences at Middle East Technical University.
  • More By Meliha Benli Altunisik