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Erdogan says Saudi Arabia wants to purchase armed Turkish drones

Turkish president voiced displeasure at kingdom's decision to conduct joint air exercises with longstanding rival Greece
Turkey has emerged as one of the world's premier makers of armed drones.
Turkey has emerged as one of the world's premier makers of armed drones (AFP)

Saudi Arabia is seeking to buy armed drones from Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday, as he voiced displeasure over Riyadh's decision to conduct military exercises with Ankara's long-standing rival Greece.

Ties between Turkey and the kingdom have been strained since the killing of Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Trade has collapsed under an informal Saudi boycott, but both countries have said they will work to improve relations.

Speaking at a news conference in Ankara, Erdogan criticised a recent joint drill between the kingdom and Greece, which is locked in a dispute with Ankara over maritime jurisdiction in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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"Saudi Arabia is conducting joint exercises with Greece," Erdogan said. "Yet at the same time, Saudi Arabia is asking us for armed drones. Our hope is to solve this issue calmly, without getting heated."

Turkey has emerged as one of the world's premier makers of armed drones, which helped ally Azerbaijan make sweeping gains in a six-week war with Armenia last year over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkish drones have also been deployed to the conflicts in Syria and Libya.

Riyadh already has a technology transfer agreement with Turkey's private Vestel company that allows Saudi Arabia to manufacture its own military drones.

The AFP news agency reported there is widespread speculation that the kingdom is seeking arms deliveries that could circumnavigate arms embargoes that some western countries have imposed for Saudi Arabia's military campaign in Yemen.

The US temporarily froze some Trump-era weapons deals to Saudi Arabia, pending a review, followed by a decision by the Joe Biden administration to end support for the Saudi-led coalition's offensive operations in Yemen.

'We don't want to fight with anyone'

Erdogan has made efforts in the past few months to mend Turkey's relations with regional rivals across the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.

Ties between the two deteriorated sharply when Turkey came out in support of Qatar in 2017 when Saudi Arabia and a coalition of countries including Egypt issued a boycott on Doha, and declined further during the immediate weeks after Khashoggi's murder.

Turkey said last week that it had diplomatic contacts with Egypt after a hiatus of several years. The country has also made several conciliatory gestures toward Riyadh in the past year.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said earlier this month that there is "no reason for our ties with Saudi Arabia not to be fixed".

"If they take positive steps, we will take positive steps. The same goes for the UAE. We don't want to fight with anyone," he said.

Still, Turkish-Saudi relations continue to have some strains, as Erdogan's statement pointed to the kingdom's decision to dispatch six F-15s to Crete for joint exercises with Greece planned for later this month.

Ankara and Athens have been sparring for much of the past year over Eastern Mediterranean borders and energy rights, and have been conducting rival military exercises with the allies in the region.