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Erdogan heads home from Riyadh, hoping to have mended ties

President Erdogan of Turkey
President Erdogan of Turkey, pictured at the UN in New York, has visited Riyadh in a bid to repair ties with Saudi Arabia. Picture: UN Photo/Marco Castro, Creative Commons.

Three-and-a-half years after accusing Saudi Arabia of murder and running a sham trial over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has made a trip to the Gulf kingdom to mend ties.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have a common will to “reactivate a great economic potential” between the two countries, Erdogan said after his first trip to the kingdom since 2017. 

Speaking to reporters on a flight back from Saudi Arabia, where he sought to mend frayed ties, Erdogan said the sides were determined to accelerate efforts for the common interests and stability of the region, Turkish media reported.

The media readout did not mention a possible currency swap nor specifics of any other planned investments that could help relieve Turkey’s economic strains. 

“We agreed with Saudi Arabia to reactivate a great economic potential through organisations that will bring our investors together,” Erdogan said. 

On his two-day visit, Erdogan met Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and discussed various international, regional and bilateral issues.

“We announced that we, as Turkey, would support them in their bid to host EXPO 2030 in Riyadh,” he added.

Erdogan’s visit marks the culmination of a months-long rapprochement drive that included dropping a trial over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. Erdogan’s office said the Saudi king invited him. 

Analysts and officials say Saudi funding could help Turkey alleviate its economic woes, including soaring inflation, ahead of tough elections for the president next year. They said a swap line could help boost depleted Turkish reserves. 

Charm offensive

Relations soured after Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi hit squad at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. At the time, Erdogan accused the “highest levels” of the Saudi government of giving the orders, but Ankara has since softened its tone.

“I believe my visit will herald a new era in the ties between our two countries. We have demonstrated our common will to enhance ties,” he said. 

Erdogan reiterated “the need for a new era in foreign policy” and said this was a process of making friends and not enemies with countries with whom “we share the same beliefs and thoughts.”

Turkey has also been working to mend long-strained ties with Israel and Ankara’s top diplomat is due to visit there in May.

Erdogan said a similar policy may be adopted towards Egypt and current low-level dialogue can be escalated. 

“We already have relations at a low level, such as between our intelligence services. Relations between our business people continue, too. Positive results indicate that these steps can be taken at a higher level,” Erdogan said of Egypt. 

Policy u-turn

After its foreign policy left it isolated in its region and beyond, Turkey launched a charm offensive in 2020 to repair ties with estranged rivals, making overtures to Egypt, the UAE, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Efforts with Cairo have so far yielded little progress but normalisation with the UAE and Israel has improved commercial and diplomatic ties. Relations with Riyadh had remained frosty while the kingdom sought a solution to the Khashoggi dispute.

Ankara had demanded senior Saudi officials be prosecuted for the murder, criticising as inadequate a Saudi verdict jailing eight people for between seven and 20 years over the killing.

However, it has since softened its tone as far as saying it has no bilateral issues with Riyadh. Ankara also gave a muted response to a US intelligence report, which said Prince Mohammed had approved the killing. Riyadh denied any involvement by the Crown Prince and rejected the report’s findings.

With the Khashoggi case back in Riyadh and Turkey revising its regional policies, analysts and officials believe political obstacles to normalising ties with Saudi Arabia and ending the trade boycott have been removed.

Turkish exporters believe the boycott, which slashed their exports to Saudi Arabia by 98 percent, will now end. Neither side has confirmed a resumption of trade yet.

“There are talks between companies now, we have also gotten in contact with our old clients,” said Hasan Gumus, chairman of agribusiness firm Yayla Agro, adding trade would return to old levels rapidly when resumed.

“The crisis Turkey had with Saudi Arabia is over now,” said Middle East Institute’s Baskan. “Erdogan might secure some capital and state contracts. This is a major foreign policy reversal but it will be good for Turkey.”

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