Turkey's Erdogan Visits Saudi Arabia to Mend Strained Ties

ISTANBUL (AP) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan landed in Saudi Arabia on Thursday evening in a major reset of relations between two regional heavyweights following the slaying of a Saudi columnist in Istanbul.

The visit marks the latest in Ankara's bridge-building efforts with its key regional rival. It is also Erdogan's first visit to the kingdom since 2017, the year before the murder in Turkey of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

Erdogan was greeted at the airport in the Red Sea city of Jiddah by the Mecca governor. Official photos released by the Saudi Press Agency and the kingdom's Media Ministry showed Turkey's leader accompanied by his wife upon landing.

Earlier this month, Turkey dropped the trial of 26 Saudis suspected of involvement in the killing of Khashoggi, who'd written columns critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for The Washington Post. The move was largely seen as a gesture that paved the way for Erdogan's trip to Saudi Arabia, where he is expected to meet with both King Salman and the crown prince.

Erdogan said his talks in Jiddah will focus on ways to increase cooperation but also discuss regional and international developments.

"It is in our common interest to increase our cooperation with Saudi Arabia in areas such as health, energy, food security, agricultural technologies, defense industry and finance," Erdogan said.

Erdogan noted that his two-day visit reflects "our common will to start a new period of cooperation as two brotherly countries." It also comes during the last week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which he described as an auspicious time for "strengthening the bonds of brotherhood."

"With this understanding, we are we are engaged in sincere efforts to ensure peace in our region, to solve problems through dialogue and diplomacy," Erdogan said.

Erdogan is also expected to visit Mecca for prayers at Islam's holiest site in the final nights of Ramadan.

Turkey's diplomatic drive has coincided with its worst economic crisis in two decades, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and now the war in Ukraine. Official inflation stands at 61% while the national currency, the lira, has plummeted, falling 44% in value against the dollar in 2021.

The decision earlier this month to transfer the prosecution in Khashoggi's slaying to Saudi Arabia removed the last stumbling block to renewed Turkey-Saudi ties, in particular in Erdogan's relationship with de-facto Saudi ruler, the crown prince.

The killing of Khashoggi in the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul sparked global outrage and put pressure on the prince, who was said to have approved the operation to kill or capture Khashoggi, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment. The prince has denied any knowledge of the operation that was carried out by agents who worked directly for him.

Erdogan, while not naming the prince, has said that the order to carry out the assassination came from the "highest levels" of the Saudi government. Turkish authorities also shared audio of the killing with Western intelligence and a U.N. investigator.

A court in Saudi Arabia acquitted officials who oversaw the operation, ultimately sentencing five people to death before they were pardoned. The trial was described as a sham by rights groups.

Turkey, meanwhile, had launched a case in absentia against 26 Saudi suspects. The April 7 transfer of the case to Saudi Arabia came at the request of the Turkish prosecutor, who said there was no prospect of arresting or taking statements from the defendants.

Khashoggi's Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, appealed the decision, but an administrative court rejected her appeal last week.

Over the past year, Ankara has embarked on a diplomatic push to reset relations with countries such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia after years of antagonism following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

Turkey's support for organizations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood initially spurred the break with Arab governments that saw the group's vision political Islam as a threat.

Later developments, particularly the blockade of Turkish ally Qatar by its Gulf Arab neighbors, reinforced the split. The lifting of the embargo by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain early last year paved the way for reconciliation with Qatar, though relations remained sour with Turkey.

Erdogan last visited Saudi Arabia in July 2017 as he attempted to resolve the blockade on Qatar imposed the previous month. His foreign minister, however, has visited Saudi Arabia in the time since Khashoggi's killing and Erdogan has held calls with the king.

In February, Erdogan received a fanfare welcome in the UAE as Dubai's Burj Khalifa was lit up with the Turkish flag and Turkey's national anthem blared out.

In past months, Turkey secured a $4.9 billion currency swap deal with Abu Dhabi, following similar agreements with Qatar, China and South Korea. The UAE also announced a $10 billion fund to support investments in Turkey.

The end of an unofficial Saudi boycott of Turkish goods, which cut Ankara's exports by 90%, saw trade to Saudi Arabia reach $58 million last month, triple the level of the previous year in a sign relations were starting to warm, but still a fraction of the $5 billion in bilateral trade in 2018, the year Khashoggi was killed.