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Saudi leader visits Turkey, moving to mend rift over journalist’s murder

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shake hands during a welcome ceremony, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Saudi Crown Prince arrived in Ankara on Wednesday, making his first visit to Turkey following the slaying of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia and Turkey press ahead with efforts to repair ties that were strained by Khashoggi's killing.Burhan Ozbilici/Associated Press

The crown prince of Saudi Arabia visited Turkey on Wednesday for the first time since Saudi agents murdered prominent dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, driving a deep rift between the two regional powers.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, met President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in the Turkish capital, Ankara, in another step toward mending fences between two Middle Eastern heavyweights whose rivalry has played out across conflicts from Libya and Egypt to the Persian Gulf.

In a joint statement after the talks, the two countries said they were determined to start a “new period of cooperation,” adding that the talks reflected “the depth of the perfect relations” between them.

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An equestrian unit escorted Crown Prince Mohammed to the main gate of the presidential palace, where the two leaders greeted each other with a handshake and a kiss on each cheek before posing for photographers, a video of the welcome ceremony posted by the Turkish government showed.

Erdogan had already moved to recalibrate relations with a visit to Saudi Arabia in April, when he publicly embraced Crown Prince Mohammed and announced what he called a “new period of cooperation” between their countries.

Crippled by soaring inflation at home, Erdogan has been courting regional leaders to bolster the Turkish economy before presidential elections next year. The joint statement after the meeting said the two leaders had discussed easing trade and cooperation in fields including energy and artificial intelligence. Turkey invited Saudi investment funds to invest in Turkish startup companies, it said.

In confirming the visit last week, Erdogan said he hoped his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed would present an opportunity to take relations to a higher level.

“These are two heavyweight boxers who can punch each other quite hard — but no one is going to win by knockouts,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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“This recalibration, in a way, is unsurprising because you have a Saudi Arabia, which is rebounding right now, geopolitically and economically, and you have Turkey, which is still cornered, especially economically, but cannot be ignored,” he added.

The rapprochement follows similar moves by other countries to rebuild ties with Saudi Arabia, which drew global outrage over the grisly killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia.

A 2018 assessment by the CIA concluded that the crown prince had approved and ordered the hit team that killed and dismembered Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. The columnist had gone there to pick up some paperwork he needed to marry his fiancée.

But Crown Prince Mohammed, 36, has denied overseeing the operation or having any foreknowledge of it.

The murder swiftly ruptured ties between the two countries, which were already strained by a Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, a Turkish ally.

The Turkish government angered Saudi Arabia when it opened a vigorous investigation into Khashoggi’s murder and briefed international news media on lurid details of the case, dribbling them out slowly over time to mounting levels of international outrage. Erdogan said the order to dismember Khashoggi had come from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government but stopped just short of accusing the crown prince directly.

With Turkey facing pressing economic hardships at home, however, Erdogan opened the door to better relations with Saudi Arabia in April when he endorsed the transfer of Khashoggi’s murder trial to Saudi Arabia and traveled to the Persian Gulf kingdom for the first time since the murder.

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The meeting in Turkey is one stop for Crown Prince Mohammed on a tour in which he is meeting leaders in countries across the region, including those in Jordan and Egypt, and seeking to end a period of international isolation.

During an earlier stop in Egypt, billed as a chance for the crown prince and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to discuss regional cooperation, the prince signed 14 investment deals worth $7.7 billion across industries including technology, energy, food, pharmaceuticals, and media.

Wednesday’s visit to Turkey comes shortly before Crown Prince Mohammed is expected to meet in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with President Biden, who as a candidate vowed to make the kingdom a “pariah” over Khashoggi’s murder.

But Biden, who announced a ban on Russian oil and natural gas in response to Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine, has since made efforts to rebuild relations with Saudi Arabia as he seeks an increase in the kingdom’s oil output to stabilize surging gas prices.

“Saudi’s economic fortunes are up because oil prices are surging and countries around the world are no longer freezing the country out,” Hokayem said. “It’s a moment for Saudi to deploy its influence in less of a brash way.”

Erdogan’s thawing of relations with Saudi Arabia has drawn criticism from political opponents and rights activists at home, who have denounced the rapprochement as a moral sellout. Last week, the Turkish government announced that it had dropped all charges against suspects in the Khashoggi case, according to a court verdict reviewed by The New York Times.

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Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée at the time of his death, said on Twitter that “the political legitimacy” that Crown Prince Mohammed had gained through his recent meetings with world leaders would not “change the fact that he is a murderer.”

The leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, denounced the visit in a televised statement to members of the Turkish Parliament on Tuesday.

“You are ruining Turkey’s reputation,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, said, addressing the remark to Erdogan. “The leader of the Republic of Turkey will embrace the man who ordered the killing.”

Erdogan’s motivations are largely economic. Turkey relies on Russia for much of its natural gas. The president has warned that the economy, which has been battered by the worst inflation in two decades — in excess of 70 percent — would suffer even more severely if he were to cut off energy imports from Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine, as other U.S. allies have done.