Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is expected in Turkey on Wednesday for his first official visit to the country, after nine years of estrangement born of the Arab Spring and exacerbated by the assassination in Istanbul of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“God willing, we will see to what level we can raise relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday, confirming the arrival in Ankara of “MBS”, the de facto leader of the Saudi kingdom.
Act 1 of the reconciliation took place at the end of April: President Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia, where he discussed with the Crown Prince ways to “develop” relations between their two countries.
Three weeks earlier, the Turkish justice had decided to close the trial of the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, columnist for the Washington Post, killed and dismembered in October 2018 in the premises of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, when he came to collect documents necessary for his marriage to his Turkish fiancée.
Ankara had returned the cumbersome file to the Saudi authorities, paving the way for rapprochement with Riyadh.
Act 2 will take place on Wednesday: MBS is to be received in Ankara by Mr. Erdogan at the end of a regional tour in Egypt on Monday.
The program is not yet known, but several agreements should be signed, named to AFP by a senior Turkish official.
– “Like a beggar” –
“This is one of the most important visits to Ankara in nearly a decade,” said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
He recalls that the quarrel between Riyadh and Ankara dates back to 2013, when President Erdogan had supported against Marshal al-Sissi the deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, a pet peeve of Saudi Arabia.
The three-year blockade imposed in 2017 by Saudi Arabia on Qatar, an ally of Turkey, then the Khashoggi affair the following year, had finished poisoning relations between Ankara and Riyadh.
At the time, the Turkish president accused the “highest levels of the Saudi government” of ordering the assassination.
But less than a year from the presidential election scheduled for mid-June 2023, and while inflation is ravaging the purchasing power of Turks, President Erdogan is stepping up initiatives to normalize relations with several regional powers – the Saudi Arabia but also Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
“Erdogan has somewhat swallowed his pride. He has only one thing in mind: to win the next elections”, judges Soner Cagaptay, according to whom the Turkish president, who went to the Emirates in mid-February, “is desperately seeking to gain from Gulf investments”.
After two decades at the head of the Turkish state, Mr. Erdogan is confronted with the plummeting of the Turkish lira (-44% against the dollar in 2021 and -23% since January 1) and inflation which has reached 73 .5% year on year in May, making his re-election uncertain according to the polls.
“You have returned the file [Khashoggi] to Saudi Arabia for money, like a beggar,” the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, fumed on Tuesday.
– “Against the influence of Iran” –
For MBS, this visit marks the end of the banishment on the part of Westerners: US President Joe Biden, who is going to the Middle East in mid-July for the first time since his arrival at the White House, has planned a step in Saudi Arabia to meet the Crown Prince there.
“For Saudi Arabia, one of the primary motivations is to create a Sunni front, which will include Turkey, to counter Iran’s influence in the region”, analyzes Gönül Tol, director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute at Washington.
But for her, “this rapprochement will not make it possible to solve the major economic problems” of Turkey.
“Moreover, MBS will not easily forget Turkey’s attitude during the Khashoggi affair,” continues the researcher.
“At that time, MBS sought to promote a reformer image in the country and on the international scene. However, by revealing the Khashoggi affair, Turkey has seriously damaged this image”.