Turkey’s Erdogan visits Saudi Arabia to mend strained ties

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ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan landed in Saudi Arabia on Thursday evening in a major reset of relations between two regional heavyweights following the slaying of a Saudi columnist in Istanbul.

The visit marks the latest in Ankara’s bridge-building efforts with its key regional rival. It is also Erdogan’s first visit to the kingdom since 2017, the year before the murder in Turkey of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

Erdogan was greeted at the airport in the Red Sea city of Jiddah by the Mecca governor. The official photos were released by the Saudi Press Agency, the Kingdom’s Media Ministry and showed Turkey’s leader with his wife on the day of landing.

Earlier this month, Turkey dropped the trial of 26 Saudis suspected of involvement in the killing of Khashoggi, who’d written columns critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for The Washington Post. This gesture was widely seen as an opening for Erdogan to travel to Saudi Arabia where he will meet King Salman, the crown prince and other officials.

Erdogan said his talks in Jiddah will focus on ways to increase cooperation but also discuss regional and international developments.

“It is in our common interest to increase our cooperation with Saudi Arabia in areas such as health, energy, food security, agricultural technologies, defense industry and finance,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan noted that his two-day visit reflects “our common will to start a new period of cooperation as two brotherly countries.” It also comes during the last week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which he described as an auspicious time for “strengthening the bonds of brotherhood.”

“With this understanding, we are we are engaged in sincere efforts to ensure peace in our region, to solve problems through dialogue and diplomacy,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan is also expected to visit Mecca for prayers at Islam’s holiest site in the final nights of Ramadan.

Turkey’s diplomatic drive has coincided with its worst economic crisis in two decades, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and now the war in Ukraine. Official inflation stands at 61% while the national currency, the lira, has plummeted, falling 44% in value against the dollar in 2021.

The decision earlier this month to transfer the prosecution in Khashoggi’s slaying to Saudi Arabia removed the last stumbling block to renewed Turkey-Saudi ties, in particular in Erdogan’s relationship with de-facto Saudi ruler, the crown prince.

The killing of Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul sparked global outrage and put pressure on the prince, who was said to have approved the operation to kill or capture Khashoggi, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment. According to U.S intelligence assessments, the prince denied knowing about an operation carried out by his agents.

Erdogan, while not naming the prince, has said that the order to carry out the assassination came from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government. Turkish intelligence also received audio from the assassination with Western intelligence, and an U.N. investigator.

A court in Saudi Arabia acquitted officials who oversaw the operation, ultimately sentencing five people to death before they were pardoned. Rights groups called the trial a fraud.

Turkey, meanwhile, had launched a case in absentia against 26 Saudi suspects. Turkish prosecutor requested that the case be transferred to Saudi Arabia on April 7. He stated there wasn’t any chance of arresting the suspects or getting statements.

Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, appealed the decision, but an administrative court rejected her appeal last week.

Over the past year, Ankara has embarked on a diplomatic push to reset relations with countries such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia after years of antagonism following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

Turkey’s support for organizations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood initially spurred the break with Arab governments that saw the group’s vision political Islam as a threat.

Later developments, particularly the blockade of Turkish ally Qatar by its Gulf Arab neighbors, reinforced the split. Although relations with Turkey remained bad, reconciliation was possible with Qatar after the lifting of the embargo in Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Egypt, Bahrain, Egypt, and Bahrain.

Erdogan last visited Saudi Arabia in July 2017 as he attempted to resolve the blockade on Qatar imposed the previous month. Erdogan, his foreign minister, visited Saudi Arabia during the period since Khashoggi was killed and held phone calls with him.

In February, Erdogan received a fanfare welcome in the UAE as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa was lit up with the Turkish flag and Turkey’s national anthem blared out.

In past months, Turkey secured a $4.9 billion currency swap deal with Abu Dhabi, following similar agreements with Qatar, China and South Korea. The UAE also announced a $10 billion fund to support investments in Turkey.

The end of an unofficial Saudi boycott of Turkish goods, which cut Ankara’s exports by 90%, saw trade to Saudi Arabia reach $58 million last month, triple the level of the previous year in a sign relations were starting to warm, but still a fraction of the $5 billion in bilateral trade in 2018, the year Khashoggi was killed.

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Al-Shihri reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This report was contributed by Suzan Fraser, Turkey and Aya batrawy, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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