The Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, arrived in the Turkish capital, Ankara, with a full ceremonial welcome, the beginning of a state visit ending years of animosity between the two countries that peaked with the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
The crown prince, sometimes known as MBS, was greeted with a grand procession on horseback and a state band. He grinned broadly as he stood alongside the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who shook his hand with a small smile before the two leaders disappeared behind the gold doors of the presidential palace to begin one-on-one talks.
“God willing, we will have the opportunity to assess to what much higher level we can take Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations,” Erdoğan said, announcing the sudden visit late last week. The visit, including a private meeting and a state dinner, is expected to yield significant trade deals from Turkey.
The crown prince’s arrival followed visits to Cairo and Jordan, his most significant international trip since December 2018 when he was met with protests in Tunisia and objections from Algerian journalists and intellectuals who called his visit “unethical and politically inappropriate”.
Prince Mohammed’s visit to Ankara also represents a major shift in Middle Eastern politics and the latest efforts to welcome Saudi Arabia back into the international community after pledges to isolate the kingdom because of Khashoggi’s murder.
Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, of the European Council on Foreign Relations thinktank, said: “I highly doubt that Turkey’s assessment of what happened to Khashoggi and how it happened has changed. But clearly they had to give these concessions to the Saudis and organise a public meeting, as that is the price of normalisation.
“Part of the Saudi demand for any possible normalisation and improved economic relationship has been a public declaration of this kiss-and-make-up. Turkey may have preferred to have more of a behind-the-scenes private de-escalation and normalisation, but the Saudi government very much wanted to make this public display and official recognition part of the normalisation between two countries.”
The US president, Joe Biden, is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia and meet Prince Mohammed next month, a decision that rights activists and dissidents described as a “betrayal” of his previous promises to make the kingdom “a pariah”.
Biden’s visit comes a year and a half after he agreed to declassify an intelligence report which found that the crown prince “approved” the operation to murder Khashoggi.
“We can learn from the past that MBS is not a reliable partner, so what are we doing here?” said Agnès Callamard, the head of Amnesty International, discussing Biden’s upcoming meeting. “A reliable partner does not kill one of their journalists in a foreign country, or use surveillance technology worldwide. A reliable partner does not keep on bombing Yemen for no reason. That’s not a reliable partner.”
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee and a Turkish citizen, tweeted: “His visit to our country doesn’t change the fact that he is responsible for a murder. The political legitimacy he earns through the visits he makes to a different country every day doesn’t change the fact that he is a murderer.”
Erdoğan previously spearheaded international efforts to condemn Khashoggi’s murder, calling Turkey “the representative of the world’s common conscience” in a speech in October 2018.
The Turkish president also persistently publicised detailed information about the killing, including a gruesome transcript of an audio recording from inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul as it took place.
“We know the order to kill Khashoggi came from the highest levels of the Saudi government,” he wrote in a 2018 op-ed for the Washington Post. He added: “I do not believe for a second that King Salman, the custodian of the holy mosques, ordered the hit on Khashoggi.” That indicated he believed Prince Mohammed to be responsible.
Erdoğan moved to reset relations with countries across the region late last year, overhauling relations with Israel and the Gulf while taking steps to heal a longstanding rift with Egypt. The decision also marked a realignment of regional politics after the decision by a coalition of Gulf nations and Egypt to blockade Turkey’s ally Qatar in 2017.
In the throes of Turkey’s foreign policy reset in April, Turkish prosecutors requested that the trial of 26 Saudi intelligence agents accused of killing Khashoggi be transferred to the kingdom, effectively annulling the proceedings.
Erdoğan visited Saudi Arabia later that month, where pictures of his meeting with Prince Mohammed showed him embracing the grinning crown prince stony-faced.
The Turkish president also visited former regional opponents in Abu Dhabi for the first time in a decade in February, following a visit by the then crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, to Ankara last November.
The visits proved lucrative for Turkey at a crucial time, after the steep devaluation of the Turkish lira by almost half the previous year. In January, the UAE and Turkey announced an almost $5bn (£4.073bn) currency swap deal to bolster reserves in Ankara’s central bank, following the creation of a $10bn (£8.16m) fund for Emirati investment in Turkey.
“Erdoğan clearly wants to focus on domestic issues and is also quite desperate to raise funds for Turkey,” said Aydıntaşbaş. “He’s also changing his agenda towards the Middle East, where, after the Arab spring, Turkey’s line was support for bottom-up change.
“That mission and that goal is now entirely abandoned, an admission on Turkey’s part of the longevity of Gulf monarchies and also a pragmatic decision to want to do business with them.”
A general election is also expected in Turkey next year or before, one where the economy is likely to play a key role, and polls have shown Erdoğan facing a mounting challenge from his opponents.
“It’s clear that Erdoğan is absolutely cornered domestically because of the economy and because of the declining popularity of his party, so he wants to de-escalate with regional rivals to at least tick that box, and focus on the domestic saga at home,” said Aydıntaşbaş.