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Erdoğan meets Saudi leaders in first visit since Khashoggi killing

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince on Thursday to “develop” relations in his first visit since the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi drove a wedge between the Sunni powers, Agence France-Presse reported.

Saudi state news agency SPA published images of the Turkish leader embracing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler who US intelligence officials determined approved the plot against Khashoggi — something Riyadh denies.

The pair “reviewed the Saudi-Turkish relations and ways to develop them in all fields,” SPA reported.

Pictures published by Turkish state media also showed a separate sit-down with King Salman, the crown prince’s father.

The trip came as Turkey, facing an economic crisis fueled by the collapse of its currency and soaring inflation, tries to drum up financial support from energy-rich Gulf countries.

Prior to flying from Istanbul to Saudi’s second city Jeddah, where some roads were lined with Turkish and Saudi flags, Erdoğan said he hoped “to launch a new era” in bilateral ties.

“We believe enhancing cooperation in areas including defense and finance is in our mutual interest,” Erdoğan said.

Saudi agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi, an insider turned critic, in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018. His remains have never been found.

The gruesome act risked isolating Saudi Arabia, and especially Prince Mohammed, while escalating Riyadh’s regional rivalry with Ankara.

Turkey infuriated the Saudis by pressing ahead with an investigation into the murder of the Washington Post columnist, which Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan 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.

 ‘Vindication’?

Fallout from the Khashoggi affair continues to mar Saudi Arabia’s image, especially in the United States.

Erdoğan’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. “Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan “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 Erdoğan’s itinerary have been made public, and the trip is closed to the press.

A Turkish official told AFP that Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan’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, that have hurt Erdoğan’s popularity ahead of a general election next year.

Erdoğan 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 travelled 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 Erdoğan visited Saudi Arabia was in 2017, when he tried to mediate a dispute pitting the kingdom and other Gulf countries against Qatar.

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