Erdogan meets Saudi leaders in first visit since Khashoggi murder
Meeting will be culmination of months of efforts to mend ties, as Turkey seeks to alleviate its economic woes.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince on Thursday to “develop” relations in his first visit since the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi drove a wedge between the two countries.
Saudi state news agency SPA published images of the Turkish leader embracing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the de facto ruler who US intelligence officials determined approved the plot against Khashoggi – something Riyadh denies.
The warm embrace between Erdogan and MBS appears to signal that the previous cold relationship between the two countries is now over.
The pair “reviewed the Saudi-Turkish relations and ways to develop them in all fields,” SPA reported.
Pictures published by Turkish state media also showed a separate sit-down with King Salman, the crown prince’s father.
Erdogan went on to visit Masjid al-Haram (the Great Mosque) in Mecca, where he conducted a religious pilgrimage.
The trip came as Turkey, facing an economic crisis fuelled by the collapse of its currency and soaring inflation, tries to drum up financial support from energy-rich Gulf countries.
Prior to flying from Istanbul to Saudi’s second city Jeddah, where some roads were lined with Turkish and Saudi flags, Erdogan said he hoped “to launch a new era” in bilateral ties.
“We believe enhancing cooperation in areas including defence and finance is in our mutual interest,” Erdogan said.
Saudi agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi, an insider turned critic, in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018. His remains have never been found.
The gruesome act risked isolating Saudi Arabia, and especially Prince Mohammed, while escalating Riyadh’s regional rivalry with Ankara.
Turkey infuriated the Saudis by pressing ahead with an investigation into the murder of the Washington Post columnist, which Erdogan said was ordered at the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.
Saudi Arabia responded by unofficially putting pressure on Turkey’s economy through a boycott of key Turkish imports.
But trade between the two has been gradually improving, and in January Erdogan said he was planning a visit to Saudi Arabia.
Earlier this month, an Istanbul court halted the trial in absentia of 26 Saudi suspects linked to Khashoggi’s death, transferring the case to Riyadh.
The Turkish decision infuriated human rights campaigners and Khashoggi’s widow Hatice Cengiz, who vowed to appeal it in a higher court.
Fallout from the Khashoggi killing continues to mar Saudi Arabia’s image, especially in the United States.
Erdogan’s arrival was a win for Saudi officials keen to turn the page, said Saudi political analyst Ali Shihabi.
“Of course it is a vindication,” Shihabi said, before the Turkish president’s arrival. “Erdogan was isolated and paid a high economic price in massive economic losses resulting from an economic and travel boycott, which is why he is the one coming to Saudi”.
Both countries stand to benefit, he added, as Erdogan “needs the trade and tourism flows from Saudi, and Saudi would prefer to have him ‘on side’ on a variety of regional issues — and may be open to buy arms from Turkey.”
Speaking to reporters before his departure from Turkey, Erdogan said he believed increasing cooperation on health, energy, food security, defence industry and finance would be mutually beneficial to both countries.
Economic interests are “a major, major driver” of Erdogan’s visit, said Dina Esfandiary, senior Middle East adviser for the International Crisis Group.
“It looks like Turkey’s forgotten about Khashoggi, and I’m sure the Saudis appreciate that,” Esfandiary said.
“I’m sure we’ll see a statement about how it’s time for things to get better, maybe building economic ties and trade, a boost to the Turkish economy thanks to the Saudis,” she added.
Turkey has suffered an annual inflation rate topping 60 percent and a wave of winter street protests that have hurt Erdogan’s popularity ahead of a general election next year.
Erdogan is now seeking backing from Gulf countries with which he has been at odds in the decade since the Arab Spring revolts.
In February, he travelled to the United Arab Emirates for the first time in nearly a decade, where he called on wealthy business leaders to invest in Turkey.
The last time Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia was in 2017, when he tried to mediate a dispute pitting the kingdom and other Gulf countries against Qatar.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been working on a rapprochement for months, as part of a broader realignment that has seen regional rivals heal rifts and step back from conflicts since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.
The trip is part of a broader effort to mend relations with Gulf countries after years of hostility fueled by Erdogan’s support for Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Erdogan is looking to bolster trade and lure investment from oil exporters as Turkey’s floundering economy costs him support ahead of elections taking place next year.
His government hopes the rapprochement will help restore trade to previous levels and boost Saudi investments in Turkey.
A warming of relations with the United Arab Emirates last year has already unlocked billions of dollars’ worth of potential business.
The UAE signed a $4.9bn currency swap with Turkey in January, offering Turkey’s beleaguered currency much-needed support. The UAE has outlined plans for a $10bn fund to support investments as it seeks to at least double bilateral trade.