ANKARA (AFP) – Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler will on Wednesday (June 22) take another step towards breaking his international isolation by paying his first visit to Turkey since the murder in 2018 of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
The talks in Ankara between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan come one month before a visit to Riyadh by United States president Joe Biden, for a regional summit focused on the energy crunch caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
President Erdogan’s decision to revive ties with one of his biggest rivals is also driven in large part by economics and trade.
Turks’ living standards are imploding one year before a general election that poses one of the biggest challenges of Mr Erdogan’s mercurial two-decade rule.
After Mr Khashoggi’s death, Mr Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government released drip-by-drip details of the gruesome murder that deeply embarrassed the Saudi crown prince.
But it is now drumming up investment and central bank assistance from the very countries it opposed on ideological grounds in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts.
“I think this is probably one of the most significant visits to Ankara by a foreign leader in almost a decade,” said the Washington Institute’s Turkey specialist Soner Cagaptay.
“Erdogan is all about Erdogan. He’s all about winning elections and I think he has decided to kind of swallow his pride.”
Dr Cagaptay said Prince Mohammed is also trying to see whether he can win broader backing ahead of a possible new nuclear agreement between world powers and the Saudis’ arch-nemesis Iran.
“I think the Saudis are hedging their bets,” Dr Cagaptay said.
Turkey’s rapprochement with the Saudis began with an Istanbul court decision in April to break off the trial in absentia of 26 suspects accused of links to Mr Khashoggi’s killing and to transfer the case to Riyadh.
US intelligence officials have determined that Prince Mohammed approved the plot against Mr Khashoggi – something Riyadh denies.
The court’s decision drew strong protests from Mr Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancee, Ms Hatice Cengiz.
But it paved the way for a visit to Saudi by Mr Erdogan three weeks later, when he hugged the crown prince.
“He gets off the plane and hugs the killers,” fumed Turkey’s main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu – Mr Erdogan’s likely chief rival in the presidential race. “You should be ashamed,” he said.
Ankara expects the mending of fences between the two Sunni powers to help prop up the Turkish economy at a crucial stage of Mr Erdogan’s rule.
A Turkish official said the sides will discuss a range of issues that include cooperation between banks and support for small and medium-size businesses.
Mr Erdogan’s unconventional economic approach has set off an inflationary spiral that has seen consumer prices almost double in the past year.
Analysts believe the resulting drop in Mr Erdogan’s public approval and the depletion of state reserves means the Turkish leader can ill afford to maintain his hostile stance toward the petrodollar-filled Gulf states.
Turkey’s problems with the Saudis began when Ankara refused to accept Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Cairo in 2013.
The Saudis and other Arab kingdoms viewed the Brotherhood as an existential threat.
Those rivalries intensified after Turkey tried to break the nearly four-year blockade the Saudis and their allies imposed on Qatar in 2017.
Analysts believe that Washington is watching this gradual return of regional calm with an approving nod.
“Encouraged by the United States, this rapprochement is relaxing tensions and building diplomacy across the region,” said Dr Gonul Tol, Turkish studies director at the US-based Middle East Institute.
But Dr Tol questioned whether Prince Mohammed was prepared to fully trust Mr Erdogan.
The crown prince “will not easily forget the attitude adopted by Turkey after the Khashoggi affair”, she said.
“In the short term, I do not think there will be a dramatic improvement in the Turkish economy.”