In Detente Drive, Erdogan Travels to Saudi Arabia for First Time Since Khashoggi Killing

The Turkish president's decision to transfer the murder trial of Jamal Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia removed the last hurdle to rekindle ties with Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.Credit: Hassan Ammar, AP / Umit Bektas, Reuters

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday his visit to Saudi Arabia was an example of a common will to start a new period in relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and that he hoped to improve ties on a basis of mutual respect and trust.

Erdogan visit to Saudi Arabia is the latest leg of Ankara’s bridge-building efforts with regional rivals.

Speaking to reporters before his departure from Turkey, Erdogan said he believed increasing cooperation on health, energy, food security, defense industry and finance would be mutually beneficial.

He will meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the visit, he said.

It will be Erdogan’s first visit to the kingdom since Turkey dropped the trial of 26 Saudis suspected of involvement in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018.

Talks with Saudi officials during the two-day visit will focus on ways of increasing cooperation, according to a statement from Erdogan office. The sides will exchange views on regional and international issues.

The decision earlier this month to transfer the prosecution to Saudi Arabia removed the last stumbling block to renewed Turkey-Saudi ties, in particular in Erdogan’s relationship with de-facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The killing of Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate sparked global outrage and put pressure on the prince, who was said to have approved the operation to kill or capture Khashoggi, in a U.S. intelligence report released a year ago. The Saudi government has always denied any involvement by the prince.

Erdogan, while not naming the prince, said the order to carry out the assassination came from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.

A Saudi court jailed eight people over the killing in September 2020 – a trial described as a sham by rights groups – but Turkey also launched a case in absentia against 26 Saudi suspects.

The April 7 transfer of the case to Saudi Arabia came at the request of the Turkish prosecutor, who said there was no prospect of arresting or taking statements from the defendants.

Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, had appealed against the decision to suspend the trial in Turkey and to transfer the case to Saudi Arabia, but an administrative court rejected the 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.

Turkey’s support for popular movements linked to the Muslim Brotherhood initially spurred the break with Arab regimes that saw the brotherhood’s vision of political Islam as a threat.

Later developments, particularly the blockade of Turkish ally Qatar by its Gulf neighbors, reinforced the split. The lifting of the embargo by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain early last year paved the way for reconciliation.

Erdogan last visited Saudi Arabia in July 2017 as he attempted to resolve the blockade on Qatar imposed the previous month. In February, he 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.

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 percent while the lira has plummeted, falling 44 percent in value against the dollar in 2021.

Turkey has 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 percent, saw trade to Saudi Arabia reach $58 million last month, triple the level for the previous year but a fraction of the $298 million registered in March 2020.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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