Turkey’s Erdogan hosts Saudi crown prince, ending rift over Khashoggi murder

ISTANBUL — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia traveled to Turkey on Wednesday, in his first visit since Saudi agents killed and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018.

The killing of Khashoggi, a contributor to The Washington Post who had written columns criticizing Mohammed, opened what seemed to be an untreatable rift between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. After the murder, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the “highest levels” of the Saudi government of responsibility.

Turkey’s government mounted a global campaign to shame the kingdom’s leadership, a campaign that helped transform Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s day-to-day leader, into a pariah, isolated and largely confined to the kingdom or travel to friendly, autocratic states.

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But Erdogan, who called Khashoggi a friend, reversed course over the last year, in an effort to lure investment from oil-rich Saudi Arabia during a worsening economic crisis in Turkey that has been marked by skyrocketing inflation. In early April, in a concession to the kingdom, Turkey announced that it was ending its prosecution of Khashoggi’s killers, who were being tried in absentia.

Later that month, Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia, declaring a “new era of our relations.” As the crown prince arrived at Turkey’s presidential palace in Ankara, the capital, Wednesday, everything appeared forgiven: Erdogan, standing on a blue carpet with a broad smile, greeted Mohammed with kisses on both cheeks.

Turkey’s reversal has prompted criticism by some of Erdogan’s domestic political opponents and derision from human rights activists, who said it was a particularly stark example of national interests trumping other concerns. For Mohammed, the trip to Turkey was part of a regional tour that seemed aimed at repairing his image, with stops in Jordan and Egypt.

Next month, President Biden is expected to visit Saudi Arabia and meet with the crown prince — abandoning a campaign pledge to make the kingdom a “pariah” over the killing of Khashoggi and other human rights abuses.

Turkish media said that Erdogan and Mohammed would discuss cooperation in trade, tourism, health care and security matters. An unnamed Turkish official, quoted by Reuters, said the two countries had also agreed to end mutual negative media coverage.

Increased cooperation with Saudi Arabia could be a boon to Erdogan, who is facing a tough reelection next year, principally because of his government’s economic policies, which have led to surging inflation and the steady depreciation of the local currency.

But data published Wednesday by MetroPoll, a Turkish polling firm, suggested that there was no great clamor among the Turkish public for restored relations with Saudi Arabia, with less than 30 percent of respondents saying they viewed “getting closer” with the kingdom positively. More than 50 percent said they opposed it.

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It was not clear whether Erdogan’s government had asked Saudi Arabia for any information regarding Khashoggi’s killing in return for normal relations — including the location of his remains, which have never been found. Saudi Arabia has blamed the journalist’s killing on rogue agents. The crown prince had denied he ordered the murder.

“He is unfairly killed, he is someone even without a grave,” Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. Referring to Mohammed, she added that “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.”

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