Saudi Crown Prince gets warm welcome in Turkey as ties improve

ANKARA • Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used a lavish reception in Ankara yesterday to turn the page on years of rancour that had brought trade and diplomatic ties to a virtual standstill.

Mr Erdogan welcomed the Crown Prince with full military honours as blue-uniformed presidential guards on horseback carried the flags of both countries. The two leaders smiled and embraced ahead of the playing of national anthems.

Prince Mohammed's visit is the first by the de facto Saudi ruler since the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The killing of the journalist, who had criticised the Prince's policies, severely strained ties between the two regional powers.

Back then, Mr Erdogan's aides appeared to revel in releasing gory details of how Saudi agents had dismembered Mr Khashoggi, putting the heir to the throne under immense international pressure.

In the US, President Joe Biden vowed during his election campaign to turn the world's biggest oil exporter into a pariah.

Times have changed. Mr Biden will make his first visit to Saudi Arabia next month as the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushes up gasoline prices at home.

And as Turkey struggles with a weak currency and inflation above 70 per cent, Mr Erdogan has stepped up efforts to rebuild ties with the kingdom and draw investment ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

Two Turkish officials involved in talks with the Saudis said Ankara is seeking a currency swap deal, akin to several that Turkey implemented with other countries in recent years. It is one of several options being discussed to secure foreign inflows from Saudi Arabia, flush with cash from high oil prices.

A deal could ease pressure on Turkey's battered currency and help the government cope with the rising cost of energy imports.

Separately, Turkish firms have complained of an unofficial boycott of the country's goods after shipments to Saudi Arabia slumped in late 2020. Last year, Turkish exports were worth just over US$200 million (S$277 million), down from around US$3.2 billion in 2019, according to official Turkish data.

Mr Erdogan wants that trade back. A rapprochement with the United Arab Emirates last year has unlocked billions of dollars worth of potential business, something Turkey hopes to emulate with Saudi Arabia. The UAE signed a US$4.9 billion currency swap with Turkey in January, offering Turkey's beleaguered currency much-needed support.

The Gulf state has also outlined plans for a US$10 billion fund to support investments as it seeks to at least double bilateral trade.

In a bid to turn the page on a particularly fraught period in bilateral relations, a Turkish court ended its investigation into the Khashoggi murder in April and turned the case over to the Saudi authorities.

The veteran Turkish leader followed up with a relatively low-key visit to the kingdom.

Turkey is the final leg of a Middle East tour that took the Saudi Crown Prince to Egypt and Jordan, promoting his role as a regional power broker ahead of Mr Biden's visit. A rapprochement with Turkey would be a significant step in a broader realignment that has taken place in the Middle East since Mr Biden entered the White House.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2022, with the headline Saudi Crown Prince gets warm welcome in Turkey as ties improve. Subscribe