The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Turkey’s Erdogan travels to Saudi Arabia as rift over Khashoggi killing eases

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before their meeting in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 23, 2017.
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ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Saudi Arabia on Thursday, his first visit there since Saudi agents in Istanbul killed and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, sparking a deep, years-long rift between the two governments.

Erdogan, who called Khashoggi a friend, once led a global charge to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the 2018 murder, accusing the “highest levels” of the Saudi government of responsibility. But the Turkish leader has more recently sought to mend relations with the Saudis as he searches for ways to ease a crippling economic crisis, which was worsened by an unofficial Saudi boycott of Turkish goods.

Erdogan’s office made no advance announcement of the visit. At an airport in Istanbul before he departed, Erdogan told reporters his trip “will open the doors to a new era of our relations.”

“Around 40,000 of our citizens live in Saudi Arabia with their businesses that they have established and are making a contribution to the Saudi economy,” he said. “For Turkey, Saudi Arabia has a special place for trade, investments and large-scale projects that our developers for many years have carried out with success.”

He said that he would meet with King Salman, Saudi Arabia’s ruler, as well as his heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s day-to-day leader and the man the CIA said had probably ordered Khashoggi’s killing.

As Turkey’s economy struggles, Erdogan goes it alone

The crown prince has denied the accusation. Saudi officials have blamed the killing on operatives who went rogue.

In the days and weeks after the murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Erdogan was relentless in chastising the kingdom, first demanding that the Saudis prove their assertions that Khashoggi had left the consulate alive, and later, that they identify the location of the journalist’s remains, which have never been found.

“Where is Khashoggi’s body?” Erdogan wrote in a November 2018 op-ed published in The Washington Post. “Who gave the order to kill this kind soul? Unfortunately, the Saudi authorities have refused to answer those questions.”

Turkey issued arrest warrants for Saudi officials implicated in the killing of Khashoggi, who was a contributing columnist to The Post. It started prosecuting Saudi murder suspects in absentia, in proceedings held in public — while criticizing a parallel trial held in Saudi Arabia behind closed doors. Erdogan scolded the United States as well, accusing the Trump administration of withholding information that would shed light on the case.

Erdogan’s reaction was partly seen as pique at a foreign government for carrying out such a brazen act in Turkey. But it was also in keeping with the Turkish leader’s confrontational stance toward regional rivals like Saudi Arabia, at a moment when Ankara was still vying for influence around the Middle East.

How Turkey’s president pressured the Saudis to account for Khashoggi’s death

Erdogan also seemed to have little affection for Mohammed, the young crown prince, who had referred to Turkey as part of a regional “triangle of evil” along with Iran and Islamist groups. Some speculated that the Turkish leader was trying to drive a wedge between the crown prince and his father, King Salman, and to sideline the young leader.

But Mohammed has only grown stronger since the killing, having consolidated his position in Saudi Arabia, according to analysts. And Turkey’s economic problems have gotten worse, marked by a sagging currency and runaway inflation. The downturn has damaged Erdogan’s prospects for reelection while prompting him to mend relations with erstwhile rivals, including the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

Earlier this month, Turkey agreed to stop prosecuting the Saudi defendants and to transfer the court case to Saudi Arabia — clearing the way for Thursday’s visit by Erdogan.

“Today is a dark day for those who have spent more three years campaigning for justice for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a statement after Turkey’s justice minister announced his intention to halt the Turkish case.

“What has happened to Turkey’s declared commitment that justice must prevail for this gruesome murder and that this case would never become a pawn in political calculations and interest?”

Zeynep Karatas contributed to this report.

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