The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia visited Turkey on Wednesday for the first time since Saudi agents killed prominent dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, sparking a deep rift between the two regional powers.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, met Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey’s capital Ankara, in a next step toward mending fences between two Middle Eastern heavyweights whose rivalry has grown. played out in conflicts from Libya and Egypt to the Persian Gulf.
An equestrian unit escorted Prince Mohammed to the main entrance to the presidential palace, where the two leaders greeted each other with a handshake and kiss on each cheek before posing for photographers, a video of the welcoming ceremony posted by the Turkish government showed.
Erdogan had already begun to recalibrate relations with a visit to Saudi Arabia in April when he publicly embraced Prince Mohammed and announced what he called a “new period of cooperation” between their countries.
Crippled by rising inflation at home, Erdogan has courted regional leaders to bolster Turkey’s economy ahead of next year’s presidential election.
Confirming the visit last week, Mr Erdogan said he hoped his meeting with Prince Mohammed would provide an opportunity to take relations to the next level.
“These are two heavyweight boxers who can punch each other pretty hard — but no one is going to win by knockouts,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“This reassessment is not surprising in a sense, because you have Saudi Arabia, which is now recovering geopolitically and economically, and you have Turkey, which is still cornered, mainly economically, but cannot be ignored he added.
The rapprochement follows similar steps by other countries to rebuild ties with Saudi Arabia, sparking global outrage over the horrific murder of Mr Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia.
A 2018 review by the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Prince Mohammed approved and commissioned the team that killed and dismembered Mr Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. The columnist had gone there to pick up some paperwork he needed to marry his fiancée.
But Prince Mohammed, 36, has denied supervising the operation or having any prior knowledge of it.
The assassination quickly severed ties between the two countries, which had already been strained by a Saudi Arabia-led blockade of Qatar, a Turkish ally.
The Turkish government infuriated Saudi Arabia when it opened a vigorous investigation into Khashoggi’s murder and informed international news media about gruesome details of the case, which they slowly trickled out over time to mounting international outrage. Erdogan said the order to dismember Khashoggi came from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government, but just stopped blaming the prince directly.
However, with Turkey facing major economic problems at home, Erdogan opened the door to better relations with Saudi Arabia in April when he approved the transfer of Khashoggi’s murder trial to Saudi Arabia and traveled to the Persian Gulf kingdom for the first time. since the murder.
The meeting in Turkey is a stopover for Prince Mohammed on a tour in which he will meet leaders in countries across the region, including those in Jordan and Egypt, as he seeks to end a period of international isolation.
During an earlier stop in Egypt, heralded as an opportunity for the Prince and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to discuss regional cooperation, the Prince signed 14 $7.7 billion investment deals in sectors such as technology, energy, food, pharmaceuticals. and media.
The visit to Turkey on Wednesday comes shortly before Prince Mohammed is expected to meet in the Saudi capital Riyadh with President Biden, who vowed as a candidate to make the kingdom a “pariah” over Khashoggi’s assassination.
But Mr Biden, who announced a ban on Russian oil and natural gas in response to Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine, has since made efforts to restore relations with Saudi Arabia as he seeks to increase oil production from Russia. the kingdom to stabilize rising gas prices.
“Saudi’s economic fortunes have risen as oil prices rise and countries around the world are no longer freezing the country,” Mr Hokayem said. “It is a time for Saudi to use its influence in a less brash way.”
The thawing of Erdogan’s relations with Saudi Arabia has drawn criticism from political opponents and human rights activists domestically, who have denounced the rapprochement as a moral sell-out. Last week, the Turkish government announced it had dropped all charges against suspects in the Khashoggi case, according to a court decision reviewed by The Times.
Hatice Cengiz, Mr Khashoggi’s fiancée at the time of his death, said on Twitter that “the political legitimacy” Prince Mohammed had acquired through his recent meetings with world leaders “wouldn’t change the fact that he is a murderer”.
The leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, denounced the visit in a televised statement to members of the Turkish parliament on Tuesday.
“You are ruining Turkey’s reputation,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, who addressed the remark to Erdogan. “The leader of the Republic of Turkey will embrace the man who ordered the murder.”
Mr Erdogan’s motivations are largely economic. Turkey is dependent on Russia for much of its natural gas. The president has warned that the economy, plagued by the worst inflation in two decades — more than 70 percent — would suffer even more if he cut energy imports from Moscow because of the invasion of Ukraine, like other US allies have done.
Saudi Arabia and Russia are each among the world’s largest oil producers, so Turkey cannot afford to be at odds with both.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have long struggled for dominance of the Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East.
Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party was born out of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement with a large following. The Saudis consider the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
The Arab Spring uprisings that spread across the Middle East a decade ago helped establish the Brotherhood as an organized political force in countries like Egypt.
The Saudi government sought to undermine the uprisings it saw as a direct threat to its dominance in the region. Turkey joined Qatar to support populist movements and Islamist groups.
“There is rivalry and there is mistrust – but these are two cynical, quasi-autocratic leaders operating under similar rules,” Mr Hokayem said.
While Prince Mohammed will never forget that his Turkish counterpart opened the case before Khashoggi’s death, he acknowledges that Erdogan eventually paved the way for relations repatriation by turning the case over to Saudi authorities, Hokayem said.
“It won’t be love and friendship forever, but it’s an improvement on what’s happened in the past five to 10 years,” he said.