Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler took a big step out of international isolation Wednesday by paying his first visit to Sunni rival Turkey since the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
The talks in Ankara between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan come one month before US President Joe Biden visits Riyadh for a regional summit. Those talks will focus 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 driven in large part by economics and trade.
Turks’ living standards are imploding a year before a general election that poses one of the biggest challenges of Erdogan’s mercurial two-decade rule.
It was his Islamic-rooted government that released gruesome details of the Khashoggi murder suggesting that his body had been dismembered and dissolved in acid.
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.
‘Swallowing his pride’
“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.”
The Turkish leader personally welcomed the crown prince at his presidential palace at a grand ceremony featuring a parade of horses and a military honour guard.
They then held a two-hour meeting and a private dinner but no media event.
A joint statement issued by their foreign ministers said the meeting was held “in an atmosphere of sincerity and brotherhood embodying the depth of excellent relations between the two countries”.
It said the sides discussed Saudi investments but announced no concrete deals.
Analysts believe Prince Mohammed came to see if he could win broader backing ahead of a possible new nuclear agreement between world powers and the Saudis’ arch-enemy Iran.
“There is increased confidence (in Riyadh) that Ankara could be more useful in the current geopolitical environment,” the Eurasia Group said in a research note.
‘His bones would ache’
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 Khashoggi’s killing and to transfer the case to Riyadh.
US intelligence officials have determined that Prince Mohammed approved the plot against Khashoggi – which Riyadh denies.
The court’s decision drew protests from Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancee Hatice Cengiz. She told AFP on Wednesday that the summit was “unacceptable”.
“If Jamal had a tomb, his bones would ache,” said Cengiz.
But the Istanbul court ruling paved the way for a politically sensitive visit to Saudi Arabia by Erdogan just three weeks later.
The kingdom’s state media ended up releasing a picture of Erdogan hugging the crown prince, an image that created a furore in Turkey.
“He gets off the plane and hugs the killers,” fumed Turkey’s opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Ankara expects the mending of fences to help prop up the Turkish economy at a crucial stage of Erdogan’s rule.
Lack of trust
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 Erdogan’s public approval and depletion of state reserves mean the Turkish leader can ill afford to maintain his hostile stance toward petrodollar-rich Gulf states.
Turkey’s problems with the Saudis began when Erdogan 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 had 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 the US-based Middle East Institute’s Turkish scholar Gonul Tol.
But Tol questioned whether Prince Mohammed was prepared to fully trust Erdogan.
The crown prince “will not easily forget the attitude adopted by Turkey after the Khashoggi affair”, she said.