Saudi prince visits Turkey for first time since Khashoggi murder

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince visited Turkey on Wednesday for the first time since Saudi agents murdered prominent dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, driving a deep wedge between the two regional powers.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, meets the president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey in the Turkish capital, Ankara, in another step towards mending the fences between two Middle Eastern heavyweights whose rivalry has played out in conflicts from Libya and Egypt to the Persian Gulf.

An equestrian unit escorted Prince Mohammed to the main gate of the presidential palace, where the two leaders greeted each other with a handshake and a kiss on each cheek before posing for photographers, video of the ceremony showed. of welcome published by the Turkish government.

Mr Erdogan had already decided 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.

Paralyzed by soaring inflation in his country, Erdogan has courted regional leaders to support Turkey’s economy ahead of presidential elections next year.

Confirming the visit last week, Erdogan said he hoped his meeting with Prince Mohammed would be an opportunity to take relations to the next level.

“These are two heavyweight boxers who can hit each other pretty hard – but no one is going to win by knockout,” said Emile Hokayem, Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“This recalibration, in a way, is not surprising because you have Saudi Arabia, which is rebounding right now, geopolitically and economically, and you have Turkey, which is still cornered, especially economically, but cannot be ignored,” he added.

The rapprochement follows similar moves by other countries to renew ties with Saudi Arabia, which sparked global outrage over the gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist and vocal critic Khashoggi. ‘Saudi Arabia.

A 2018 assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Prince Mohammed approved and ordered the strike team that killed and dismembered Mr Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. The columnist had traveled there to retrieve papers which he needed to marry his fiancée.

But Prince Mohammed, 36, denied overseeing the operation or knowing about it in advance.

The murder quickly severed ties between the two countries, which were already strained by a Saudi blockade of Qatar, a Turkish ally.

The Turkish government angered Saudi Arabia when it launched a vigorous investigation into Mr Khashoggi’s murder and briefed international media on the grim details of the case, dribble them slowly over time to increasing levels of international outrage. Mr Erdogan said the order to dismember Mr Khashoggi came from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government, but stopped short of directly accusing the prince.

As Turkey faces pressing economic difficulties at home, Erdogan opened the door to better relations with Saudi Arabia in April when he endorsed the transfer of the murder trial of Mr. Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia and traveled to the kingdom of the Persian Gulf for the first time since the murder.

The meeting in Turkey is a stopover for Prince Mohammed on a tour in which he meets leaders from countries in the region, including those in Jordan and Egypt, and seeks to end a period of international isolation.

During a previous stopover in Egypt, presented as an opportunity for the prince and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to discuss regional cooperation, the prince signed 14 investment agreements worth 7.7 billion dollars in sectors such as technology, energy, food, pharmaceuticals and media.

The visit to Turkey on Wednesday comes shortly before Prince Mohammed will meet in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with President Biden, who has signed up as a candidate for make the kingdom a “pariah” on the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.

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 rebuild relations with Saudi Arabia as it seeks to boost the kingdom’s oil production to stabilize soaring gas prices.

“Saudi Arabia’s economic fortunes are on the rise because oil prices are rising and countries around the world are no longer freezing the country,” Hokayem said. “Now is the time for Saudi Arabia to deploy its influence in a less impetuous way.”

The thaw in Mr Erdogan’s relations with Saudi Arabia has drawn criticism from political opponents and human rights activists, who have denounced the rapprochement as a moral betrayal. Last week, the Turkish government announced that it had dropped all charges against the suspects in the Khashoggi case, according to a court verdict 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 gained through his recent meetings with world leaders would “not change the fact that he is a murderer”.

The leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party denounced the visit in a televised statement to members of Turkey’s parliament on Tuesday.

“You are ruining Turkey’s reputation,” said opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, addressing the remark to Mr Erdogan. “The head of the Republic of Turkey will kiss the man who ordered the murder.”

Mr. Erdogan’s motivations are largely economic. Turkey depends on Russia for much of its natural gas. The president has warned that the economy, which has been battered by the worst inflation in two decades – more than 70% – would suffer even more if he were to cut Moscow’s energy imports following his invasion of Ukraine, like other US allies did.

Saudi Arabia and Russia are each among the world’s top oil producers, so Turkey cannot afford to disagree with both.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have long disputed dominance of Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East.

Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, a widely followed Islamist movement. The Saudis consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

The Arab Spring uprisings that swept through the Middle East a decade ago helped establish the Muslim Brotherhood as an organized political force in countries like Egypt.

The Saudi government sought to reverse the uprisings, which it saw as a direct threat to its dominance in the region. Turkey has aligned itself with Qatar in supporting populist movements and Islamist groups.

“There is rivalry and there is distrust – but these are two cynical and quasi-autocratic leaders who operate under similar rules,” Mr Hokayem said.

While Prince Mohammed will never forget that his Turkish counterpart opened the case on Mr. Khashoggi’s death, he acknowledges that Mr. Erdogan ultimately paved the way for the repatriation of relations. by transferring the case to the Saudi authoritiesMr. Hokayem said.

“It won’t be love and friendship forever, but it’s an improvement over what’s happened in the last five to 10 years,” he said.

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