Analysis: Hampered by economy, Erdogan travels to Saudi Arabia to mend ties after Khashoggi U-turn

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a news conference, in Tirana, Albania January 17, 2022 REUTERS/Florion Goga

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ANKARA, April 28 (Reuters) – Three and a half years after accusing Saudi leaders of murder and staging a show trial for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan plans to visit the Gulf kingdom on Thursday to restore links.

Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government, was killed by a Saudi squad at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. At the time, Erdogan accused the “highest levels” of the Saudi government of giving the orders and criticized Riyadh’s own legal process. while refusing to share evidence with them for fear of tampering.

With Turkey’s economy now facing mounting difficulties and a tough election looming, Erdogan is pushing to mend Ankara’s strained diplomatic relations. read more read more

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The trip is the culmination of a months-long effort by Ankara to restore ties with Riyadh after Saudi Arabia imposed an unofficial boycott on Turkish imports over its stance on the Khashoggi murder, and marks a sea change on the part of Turkey.

Ankara’s decision this month to transfer its own legal case on the killing to Riyadh at the kingdom’s request has been criticized by rights groups and the opposition. But analysts and diplomats say the rapprochement was much needed given the diplomatic isolation Turkey faced.

“Turkey cannot continue this sphere of influence game that it has been pursuing since the start of the Arab Spring,” said Birol Baskan, a Turkey-based nonresident researcher at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Turkey has in recent years established military bases in Qatar and Somalia despite opposition from regional players. Ankara’s positions on conflicts in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and elsewhere, as well as the acquisition of Russian defense systems, have also caused friction with neighbors and NATO allies.

“Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy, its perception of self-aggrandizement has left it sidelined,” Baskan said, adding that economic conditions necessitated a change in approach.

Ankara describes its foreign policy as “entrepreneurial and humanitarian” and the foreign minister has called 2022 “the year of normalization” for Turkey.

The government said the decision in the Khashoggi trial was not political. Ahead of the move, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said conditions for “judicial cooperation” with Riyadh had not been met before, but the parties were implementing it now. He did not say what had changed. Read more

Turkey’s economy has been struggling for years and a pound crisis erupted in late 2021 due to an unorthodox monetary policy backed by Erdogan. Ankara has since been looking for ways to ease the pressure through international rapprochements.

In addition to existing currency swap agreements with China, Qatar, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates – worth a total of $28 billion – Ankara is considering a deal with Riyadh. It is also looking for investments and contracts, similar to those signed with Abu Dhabi.

On Wednesday, Turkish Finance Minister Nureddin Nebati said he discussed cooperation and exchanged views on economy, trade and investment with his Saudi counterpart.

After its foreign policy isolated it in its region and beyond, Turkey launched a charm offensive in 2020 to restore ties with distant rivals, making overtures to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Efforts with Cairo have so far yielded little progress, but normalization with the United Arab Emirates and Israel has improved trade and diplomatic relations. Relations with Riyadh had remained frosty as the kingdom sought a solution to the Khashoggi dispute.

Ankara had demanded that senior Saudi officials be prosecuted for the murder, criticizing as inadequate a Saudi verdict jailing eight people for seven to 20 years for the murder.

However, he has since greatly softened his tone to say he has no bilateral issues with Riyadh. Ankara also gave a muted response to a US intelligence report that Prince Mohammed approved of the killing.

Riyadh denied any involvement by the crown prince and rejected the report’s findings.

With the return of the Khashoggi affair to Riyadh and the overhaul of Turkey’s regional policy, analysts and officials say the political obstacles to normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia and ending the trade boycott have been lifted.

Turkish exporters believe the boycott, which cut their exports to Saudi Arabia by 98%, will now end. Neither side has yet confirmed the resumption of trade.

“There are talks between the companies now, we have also made contact with our old customers,” said Hasan Gumus, chairman of agribusiness company Yayla Agro, adding that trade would quickly return to old levels once resumed.

“The crisis Turkey had with Saudi Arabia is now over,” said Baskan of the Middle East Institute.

“Erdogan could get capital and state contracts. This is a major foreign policy reversal, but it will be good for Turkey.”

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Written by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Additional reporting by Nevzat Devranoglu and Ceyda Caglayan; Editing by Ali Kucukgocmen, Daren Butler and Toby Chopra

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