The Turkish president will extend his stay in the Wahhabi kingdom until Friday in a trip that relaunches bilateral relations

Erdoğan visits Saudi Arabia to seal a rapprochement with Riyadh

AFP PHOTO/TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shaking hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a meeting as part of an official visit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 23, 2017

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's trip to Saudi Arabia, scheduled for Thursday, confirms the bilateral reunion after the many attempts at rapprochement staged in recent months by the two administrations. Since the outbreak of the diplomatic crisis in 2020 as a result of the dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known critic of the Wahhabi regime, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Ankara has been putting Riyadh, whose leadership was implicated in the murder, on the back foot.

Erdoğan last visited Riyadh in the summer of 2017, five years ago, to resolve the diplomatic schism that had emerged in the Persian Gulf. The Islamist leader then sought to unblock the sea, land and air blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain months earlier on Qatar, Turkey's main regional ally, over its close ties with Iran and its backing for Islamist 'terrorism'. But it would have to wait three years to see that dispute resolved in the wake of the Al-Ula summit.

Relations between Ankara and Riyadh remained stable despite President Erdoğan's Islamist profile and expansionist agenda. But they soon deteriorated. The heinous murder of 'The Washington Post' columnist, a connoisseur of the Saudi Royal Court, proved to be the 'casus belli' that led to the diplomatic rift. Erdoğan's contentful finger-pointing at the 'highest levels' of the regime, without naming the crown prince, strained Riyadh, which also received unanimous condemnation from the international community.

Jamal Khassoghi

A report published by the CIA months later provided evidence of the involvement of MBS, who ultimately approved the operation that led to Khashoggi's dismemberment. The Saudi Royal Court rejected the allegations outright, but the Turkish judiciary decided to prosecute the 26 Saudis suspected of involvement in the crime, a move that made a Saudi regime determined to sever relations with Ankara uncomfortable.

Turkey began to reduce its belligerence against Saudi Arabia in an attempt to calm the waters. Saudi pressure, not only at the diplomatic level, but also - and above all - at the economic level, made Erdoğan finally back down and give in at the beginning of the month to the demands of the Wahhabi Kingdom, whose demands were to close the case and hand it over to the Saudi judiciary. And so it has happened.

Ankara's decision to transfer the case, ratified on 7 April at the request of the Turkish prosecutor, since, according to him, there was no option of arresting or taking statements from the accused, raised eyebrows in the international community, but paved the way for a reunion between two of the region's heavyweights. A second lawsuit in a US federal court filed by Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi's fiancée, still has little chance of being resolved.

The Saudi judiciary held a trial described as a "farce" by human rights groups, sentencing five people involved to the death penalty. However, they were eventually pardoned. Sources close to the Saudi Royal Court quoted by 'Middle East Eye' claim that Mohamed bin Salman is obsessed with the 'Khashoggi case', which has soured Saudi Arabia's relations with its Western partners. MBS blames Erdoğan for involving Washington in a plot that he wants to see closed at all costs.

The Turkish president has been pragmatic in his approach and has decided to appease Saudi ambitions in order to defuse tensions. The Saudi king's invitation to Erdoğan sealed the reunion between Ankara and Riyadh, whose agendas are now aligned in a context marked by the global crisis triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The winks have been a constant in recent weeks. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu held a meeting in February with his Saudi counterpart, Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, with the aim of deepening bilateral relations. Meanwhile, the Turkish government's finance minister, Nureddin Nebati, discussed with his counterpart, Mohammed Al-Jadaan, new ways to boost their trade relations, which have been damaged since Riyadh's unofficial boycott of Turkish imports.

President Erdoğan's stay in Saudi Arabia will last two days, until Friday. His agenda includes a dinner with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and a summit with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 'de facto' ruler of the Kingdom. He will also make an overnight pilgrimage to Mecca. Erdoğan is expected to visit the holy city after the end of the talks to perform prayers on one of the last nights of Ramadan.

Erdogan Bin Salman

The parties will discuss the situation in Yemen, Libya and Syria, as well as political instability in Iraq and the status of negotiations on reviving the nuclear deal with Iran. However, the Islamist leader's plans are first and foremost to normalise bilateral relations, restore damaged diplomatic ties with Riyadh and rebuild trade links at a crucial time for Turkey's economy, which has been hit by 61 per cent inflation and a 44 per cent fall in the Turkish lira against the dollar.

Saudi economic backing could serve as a catalyst to overcome the crisis. A crisis that threatens Erdoğan's leadership with elections a year away, in a scenario that is also uncertain for the president, with several figures challenging his continuity in power. However, the displacement of the Islamist leader is part of a large-scale strategy to iron out differences with his regional rivals, whose relations have deteriorated since the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

As a footnote, the presence in Saudi Arabia of the recently elected Pakistani prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, who made his first visit as head of government to the Wahhabi kingdom on Thursday, is noteworthy. In any case, no meeting between the two has been made public.