Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will visit Turkey this week in a controversial visit meant to put to rest the murder of a journalist that strained relations between the two countries for years.
The diplomatic visit to Ankara on Wednesday comes almost four years after Prince Mohammed’s enforcers lured, abducted, murdered and dismembered dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi diplomatic facilities in Istanbul.
The killing of the Washington Post columnist sparked a global uproar, and raised questions about international embrace of the Saudi monarchical dictatorship. MBS, as the crown prince is often called, became a pariah, shunned by international players, including leading figures in the United States. Turkey, then in several disputes with Riyadh, turned up the heat with denunciations of the murder and selective leaks aimed at keeping the story in the news and put the pressure on MBS.
But that was then.
The US now needs Saudi Arabia to ramp up oil production to counter the impact of high energy prices ahead of midterm elections this year. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now needs Gulf oil money to improve his country’s ailing economy ahead of general elections next year, and he has in recent months improved ties with the United Arab Emirates as well as Saudi Arabia.
“It’s certainly despicable given the great theatrics of Erdogan in the wake of the murder and his bombastic speeches,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, an advocacy group promoting Khashoggi and his ideas.
“It’s very fitting for Erdogan to return to the fold of the authoritarians,” she said in an interview. “A cosy relationship with the dictators of the Gulf is a much better fit for him, The collapsing Turkish economy is giving him all the nudge he needs to patch things up.”
MBS will be embraced next month by US President Joe Biden at a summit next month in Riyadh during his first presidential visit to the Middle East. Saudi news outlets have been playing up the visit as a recognition of the oil-rich kingdom’s clout.
Prince Mohammed’s father King Salman is 86 years old and may soon pass from the scene. The visit to Ankara, which follows visits to Jordan and Egypt, is meant to send Americans and others the message that the Khashoggi file has been closed and it is time for Prince Mohammed to take his place among world leaders, says Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat.
“He wants to reflect the power of Saudi Arabia as a regional leader and not just a leader of Saudi Arabia,” he said in an interview. “He’s trying to open a new page with the Turks.”
Mr Erdogan visited Riyadh in April after the Turkish judiciary wrapped up its investigation of the Khashoggi murder and referred the matter to Saudi courts.
Security concerns are also driving the rapprochement. Senior Turkish officials say Saudi Arabia is in talks to buy the same Bayraktar TB2 combat drones that have been celebrated by Ukrainian forces fighting off a Russian invasion. Riyadh is also eager to draw Turkey further away from Iran, its archrival.
“Facing Iran is very important for Riyadh,” said Mr Barabandi. “Nobody that wants to be a regional player can ignore Turkey.”
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have also been at odds with Turkey for its support of populist Islamist movements deemed a threat to Arab autocracies. In recent months, Mr Erdogan has silenced Turkey-based media outlets speaking out against the Egyptian regime and scaled back any official support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the century-old Islamist group. But Ms Whitson said MBS’s presence in the country will be a shock for many Turks.
“To have MBS walking the streets of the same country where he butchered Jamal,” she said. “I really don’t know how Erdogan is going to spin this to his public.”