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Politics

Saudi Crown Prince Visits Turkey as Countries Normalize Ties

ANKARA — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is scheduled to arrive in Ankara on Wednesday, making his first visit to Turkey following the slaying of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

As Saudi Arabia and Turkey press ahead with efforts to repair ties that were strained by Khashoggi’s killing, the crown prince will meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the last leg of a Middle East tour that also took him to Egypt and Jordan.

Erdogan said talks with Prince Mohammed, who is commonly referred to by his initials MBS, would focus on advancing Turkish-Saudi relations to a “much higher degree.” Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia in April, paying his first visit to the kingdom since 2017, a year before the gruesome killing of Khashoggi by Saudi agents inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.

As relations with Turkey frayed, Saudi Arabia launched an unofficial embargo on Turkish exports, dramatically curbing around $5 billion in bilateral trade. The kingdom also temporarily barred wildly popular Turkish soap operas.

Efforts by the regional heavyweights to improve their ties come as Turkey faces its worst economic crisis in two decades and is trying to draw investments from wealthy Gulf Arab states. Turkey has also taken steps to improve relations with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel.

Talks with the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan late last year led to investment deals worth $10 billion after years of regional rivalry.

Saudi Arabia for its part, has been trying to broaden its alliances at a time of strained relations between Riyadh and Washington. The crown prince also seeks to put an end to the scandal over Khashoggi’s killing that damaged his reputation.

Ayham Kamel, head of the Euroasia Group’s Middle East research team, said the prince’s regional trip this week is “designed to cement Riyadh’s regional role and expand reconciliation efforts ahead of President Joe Biden’s visit to the kingdom next month.”

The trip to Turkey would advance a normalization of Saudi-Turkey ties, he said, adding that it could also serve to mediate between Cairo and Ankara. Turkey and Egypt are still working toward reconciliation after their relations broke down over Turkey’s strong opposition to the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and its support to members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

“Bilateral trade is likely to increase, and there is a good chance that Saudi tourism flows to Turkey will resume,” Kamel wrote. “Talks could also involve military/defense cooperation or arms procurement, as the Saudis are interested in exploring diversifying their suppliers.”

Turkey opened a trial in absentia against 26 Saudis suspected in Khashoggi’s killing, but the court earlier this year ruled to halt the proceedings and transfer the case to Saudi Arabia, paving the way for the countries’ rapprochement.

Prince Mohammed’s Middle East trip comes before U.S. President Joe Biden’s scheduled trip to the region next month. Biden is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia at the tail end of his July 13-16 trip that includes stops in Israel and the occupied West Bank.

The killing of Khashoggi sparked global outrage and put pressure on Prince Mohammed, who was said to have approved the operation to kill or capture Khashoggi, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment. The prince has denied any knowledge of the operation that was carried out by agents who worked directly for him.

While never naming Prince Mohammed, Erdogan said the operation that killed Khashoggi was ordered by the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.

Khashoggi entered the consulate in October 2018 by appointment to obtain papers to allow him to wed his Turkish fiancée, who waited for him outside. He never emerged and his body was never found.

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