RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived Thursday in Saudi Arabia, state media reported, his first visit since the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi drove a wedge between the Sunni powers.
Prior to taking off from Istanbul, Erdogan said he hoped “to launch a new era” in bilateral ties.
The trip comes as Turkey, facing an economic crisis fuelled by the collapse of its currency and soaring inflation, tries to drum up financial support from energy-rich Gulf countries.
Erdogan’s plane landed in Saudi Arabia’s second city Jeddah for a visit that was expected to include a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“We believe enhancing cooperation in areas including defense and finance is in our mutual interest,” Erdogan said before he left Turkey.
Saudi agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi, a Saudi insider turned critic who wrote columns for The Washington Post, in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018. His remains have never been found.
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The gruesome act risked isolating Saudi Arabia, and especially Prince Mohammed, while escalating Riyadh’s regional rivalry with Ankara.
A US intelligence assessment found Prince Mohammed “approved” an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi — something Riyadh denies.
Turkey infuriated the Saudis by pressing ahead with an investigation into the murder, which Erdogan said was ordered at the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.
Saudi Arabia responded by unofficially putting pressure on Turkey’s economy through a boycott of key Turkish imports.
But trade between the two has been gradually improving, and in January Erdogan said he was planning a visit to Saudi Arabia.
Earlier this month, an Istanbul court halted the trial in absentia of 26 Saudi suspects linked to Khashoggi’s death, transferring the case to Riyadh.
The Turkish decision infuriated human rights campaigners and Khashoggi’s widow Hatice Cengiz, who vowed to appeal it in a higher court.
Fallout from the Khashoggi affair continues to mar Saudi Arabia’s image, especially in the United States.
Erdogan’s arrival will be seen as a win by Saudi officials keen to turn the page, said Saudi political analyst Ali Shihabi.
“Of course it is a vindication,” Shihabi said. “Erdogan was isolated and paid a high economic price in massive economic losses resulting from an economic and travel boycott, which is why he is the one coming to Saudi”.
Both countries stand to benefit, he added, as Erdogan “needs the trade and tourism flows from Saudi, and Saudi would prefer to have him ‘on side’ on a variety of regional issues — and may be open to buy arms from Turkey.”
Few details about Erdogan’s itinerary have been made public, and the trip is closed to the press.
A Turkish official told AFP that Erdogan was not expected to make any formal announcement during the trip, which is expected to stretch into Friday.
Economic interests are “a major, major driver” of Erdogan’s visit, said Dina Esfandiary, senior Middle East adviser for the International Crisis Group.
“It looks like Turkey’s forgotten about Khashoggi, and I’m sure the Saudis appreciate that,” Esfandiary said.
“I’m sure we’ll see a statement about how it’s time for things to get better, maybe building economic ties and trade, a boost to the Turkish economy thanks to the Saudis,” she added.
Turkey has suffered an annual inflation rate topping 60 percent and a wave of winter street protests, which have hurt Erdogan’s popularity ahead of a general election next year.
Erdogan is now seeking backing from Gulf countries with which he has been at odds in the decade since the Arab Spring revolts.
In February, he traveled to the United Arab Emirates for the first time in nearly a decade, where he called on wealthy business leaders to invest in Turkey.
The last time Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia was in 2017, when he tried to mediate a dispute pitting the kingdom and other Gulf countries against Qatar.