BEIRUT, Lebanon – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit Saudi Arabia for the first time in nearly five years on Thursday, capping his recent efforts to improve ties with the oil-rich kingdom at a time of deep economic crisis. domestic violence and to ease years of tension over the assassination of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
Erdogan is due to arrive on Thursday evening and meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, following the breaking of the daily Ramadan fast.
Speaking to reporters at the airport before departing for Saudi Arabia, Erdogan said the trip was part of Turkey’s efforts to promote peace, dialogue and diplomacy in the region.
“My visit is the manifestation of our joint will to start a new period of cooperation as two brother countries with historical, cultural and human ties”, he said.
Turkey this month granted a Saudi request to transfer the Khashoggi murder trial to Saudi Arabia, a move that closed the latest case that human rights activists had hoped to shed more light on how the murder took place. He was killed in 2018 by Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and the transfer of the trial was likely a prerequisite for Erdogan’s visit.
Sinan Ulgen, a Carnegie Europe visiting researcher who studies Turkish foreign policy, said the visit followed others aimed at improving Turkey’s ties with regional countries. Erdogan visited the United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, in February and hosted President Isaac Herzog of Israel in Turkey in March.
The visit to Saudi Arabia likely came later because the issue of the Turkish trial of suspects in the Khashoggi murder case had to be resolved first, Ulgen said.
“It’s Erdogan bowing to pressure from the Saudis to normalize the relationship,” he said.
According to a tentative schedule, Erdogan is expected to dine on Thursday with King Salman, the Saudi monarch, and meet with Prince Mohammed, the king’s son and designated successor. In his remarks before leaving Turkey, Erdogan said he intends to increase cooperation with Saudi Arabia on issues such as energy, food security, defense and finance.
“We will discuss all these issues,” he said.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have long been on opposite sides of major divisions in the Middle East, especially after the Arab Spring uprisings that spread across the region in early 2010. Turkey has largely supported protest movements and Islamist groups, while Saudi Arabia sought to subvert them and actively supported some of the region’s strongmen.
Relations deteriorated further after 2018, when Saudi agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi media figure who moved to the United States and became an outspoken critic of the Saudi crown prince, including in columns for the Washington Post.
Understanding the Khashoggi Murder Case
The crime, the sounds of which Turkish intelligence captured with bugs planted inside the consulate, shocked the world, and Erdogan’s government released gory details to keep the story in the headlines and embarrass Prince Mohammed.
While he never accused Prince Mohammed by name of orchestrating the assassination, Erdogan said the decision to kill Khashoggi came from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government, leaving little doubt about who he was talking about.
Prince Mohammed denied that he had any prior knowledge of the plot against Khashoggi, but a Central Intelligence Agency assessment concluded that he had approved the plan to kill or capture Khashoggi.
More recently, Erdogan has sought to improve ties with Middle Eastern countries with whom his government has differed over the Arab Spring and other issues, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
At least part of the motivation is economic. Turkey’s economy has been crippled by inflation of over 60%, and the value of the local currency has plummeted, leaving many Turks feeling much poorer than they did not long ago. Turkey’s recent diplomatic initiatives have led to investment agreements and currency exchanges aimed at strengthening its economy, and Saudi Arabia has lifted an unofficial boycott of Turkish imports, allowing trade between the two countries to grow again.