ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will to travel to Saudi Arabia on Thursday in a major reset of relations between two regional heavyweights following the slaying of a Saudi columnist in Istanbul.
It marks the latest leg of Ankara’s bridge-building efforts with regional rivals. It will be Erdogan’s first visit to the kingdom since 2017, the year before Jamal Khashoggi’s killing.
Earlier this month, Turkey dropped the trial of 26 Saudis suspected of involvement in the killing of Khashoggi, who’d written columns critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for The Washington Post. The move was largely seen as a gesture that paved the way for Erdogan’s trip to Saudi Arabia, where he is expected to meet with both King Salman and his son, the crown prince.
Talks with Saudi officials in the Red Sea coast of Jiddah during the two-day visit will focus on ways to increase cooperation, according to a statement from Erdogan’s office. The sides will exchange views on regional and international issues.
Saudi officials say the visit is focused on normalizing relations between the two countries and restoring ties to their previous state. The two sides will also discuss conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Syria and shared support for the Palestinians. Stability in Iraq and Iran’s nuclear file are also on the agenda. The officials spoke anonymously in order to talk about the visit.
Erdogan is expected to visit Mecca after his meetings to perform prayers at Islam’s holiest site in the final nights of Ramadan.
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% while the lira has plummeted, falling 44% in value against the dollar in 2021.
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, 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.
Erdogan, while not naming the prince, said the order to carry out the assassination came from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government. Turkish authorities also shared audio of the killing with Western intelligence and a U.N. investigator.
A court in Saudi Arabia acquitted officials who oversaw the operation, ultimately sentencing five people to death before they were given pardons. The trial was described as a sham by rights groups.
Turkey, meanwhile, had 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, appealed the decision, but an administrative court rejected her 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 longtime opposition group’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 with Qatar, though relations remained sour with Turkey.
Erdogan last visited Saudi Arabia in July 2017 as he attempted to resolve the blockade on Qatar imposed the previous month. His foreign minister, however, has visited Saudi Arabia in the time since Khashoggi’s killing and Erdogan has held calls with King Salman.
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.
In past months, Turkey 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%, saw trade to Saudi Arabia reach $58 million last month, triple the level of the previous year in a sign relations were starting to warm, but still a fraction of the $5 billion in bilateral trade in 2018, the year Khashoggi was killed.