Global Economy

Saudi Crown Prince's Visit to Turkey Marks Turning Point After Khashoggi Killing


ISTANBUL—Saudi Crown Prince

Mohammed bin Salman

is set to visit Turkey on Wednesday for the first time since the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as he looks to end years of international isolation that nearly jeopardized his grip on power, ahead of a trip by President Biden to the kingdom.

Mr. Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi leadership, was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by men close to Prince Mohammed. The U.S. intelligence community concluded that the prince likely ordered the killing of the Washington Post columnist. The Saudi government initially denied the incident but later acknowledged that government officials carried out the killing and said the crown prince wasn’t personally involved.

The murder evoked international condemnation of Saudi Arabia and led countries and businesses around the world to shun the crown prince and his government.

Now, major world leaders are once again beginning to embrace Prince Mohammed, who runs Saudi Arabia’s daily affairs on behalf of his aging father, King Salman. Next month, Mr. Biden is set to visit the kingdom to meet Prince Mohammed, having previously refused to deal with him directly as U.S.-Saudi relations sunk to their lowest point in decades.

The prince’s visit to Turkey is part of a tour of Middle Eastern nations, marking a turning point in his efforts to gain international acceptance.

He visited Egypt and Jordan on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, he is set to meet Turkish President Recep

Tayyip Erdogan,

who is seeking investments that could help him steady his nation’s shaky economy.

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With oil prices hovering above $100 a barrel following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest exporter of crude, is flush with cash and recording strong economic growth this year. The kingdom, which has refused U.S. requests to pump more oil to help bring down prices and undercut Russian war finances, has long used its oil wealth to expand its influence across the world. In March, the government deposited $5 billion in the central bank of Egypt, providing aid to a core regional partner that has been buffeted by global economic turmoil.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia signed investment deals worth $7.7 billion in the fields of infrastructure, logistics, ports administration, food industry, medicine, energy and technology, Egyptian state media reported Tuesday.

Prince Mohammed’s trip to Turkey comes after he received visits in recent months from the leaders of Britain and France that paved the way for his return to the international fold.

After pledging to punish Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses as a candidate, President Biden is set to travel to the kingdom to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in July. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday breaks down five issues the leaders are likely to discuss. Photo composite: Adele Morgan

Prince Mohammed has rarely traveled outside Saudi Arabia since the killing, restricting his official visits to friendly Arab countries nearby. He hasn’t visited the U.S. or Europe and skipped international summits last year, but is expected to make a trip to Greece and Cyprus later this summer in another sign that global pressure on him is easing.

Mr. Biden has criticized Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record, calling the kingdom a pariah when he was on the campaign trail and clearing the release of the intelligence report that determined Prince Mohammed ordered the operation that led to Mr. Khashoggi’s death.

The killing set off a wave of Western condemnations that complicated Riyadh’s foreign relations and hampered efforts to attract foreign investment as it looks to transform its economy away from oil. Some international companies have slowly but warily returned, attracted by a slate of economic and social reforms the crown prince has begun to implement.

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Initially, Mr. Erdogan strongly condemned Mr. Khashoggi’s killing and his government orchestrated a series of leaks to the media that embarrassed and piled pressure on Prince Mohammed, opening a rift between the two countries. In 2020, Turkish prosecutors indicted 18 Saudis with the killing, including two of the crown prince’s aides.

But Mr. Erdogan’s tone began to shift last year when his government embarked on a broad foreign-policy reset designed to mend relations with Middle East rivals including Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The push for reconciliation gathered momentum after the Turkish economy suffered a currency crisis that wiped as much as 45% off the value of the lira.

Regional officials have said Prince Mohammed sought a promise that the Turkish leader would never mention Mr. Khashoggi’s death again and would prevail upon the Turkish media to stop dredging up the topic.

In April, an Istanbul court halted the trial of Saudi security officials charged with murdering Mr. Khashoggi and weeks later Mr. Erdogan embraced Prince Mohammed on his first visit to Saudi Arabia since the killing. Human-rights groups have warned that the Turkish court’s decision would end hopes of accountability in the case and stop key evidence from becoming public. Mr. Khashoggi’s remains have never been found.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in April.



Photo:

/Associated Press

Simon Henderson, a Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank, said Prince Mohammed could now encourage Saudi investment in Turkey to help Mr. Erdogan in elections next year.

“That will require MBS to put behind him the embarrassment he experienced when Erdogan drip fed the media with details of the murder of Khashoggi,” said Mr. Henderson, using a short-hand reference for the crown prince.

Turkish-Saudi tensions have historical precedents: In the 19th century, Turkey’s Ottoman forebears clashed with the ancestors of Saudi Arabia’s modern founder. More recently, Ankara has opposed Riyadh and its Arab allies in a struggle for influence within the Middle East, in part because of clashing visions of the region following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

The Turkish leader has also renewed ties in the past year with the U.A.E., a Saudi ally, as part of his attempt to repair ties with former rivals. That resulted in a promise of $10 billion in investments from Abu Dhabi and a $5 billion currency swap.

Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi scholar and research director for Democracy for the Arab World Now, an advocacy group founded by Mr. Khashoggi, said Mr. Erdogan had run out of leverage over the Saudi crown prince.

“We knew that Turkey and the issue of Khashoggi wasn’t something that was about justice for them. It was politics from day one,” he said. “From the Turkish perspective they already did some damage and they can’t do much beyond that.”

Write to Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com and Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com

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