Economic woes force Erdogan to befriend Saudis

Published April 29, 2022
This handout image released by the Saudi press Agency (SPA) on April 28, 2022 shows Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz escorting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (L) during a meeting in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah. — AFP
This handout image released by the Saudi press Agency (SPA) on April 28, 2022 shows Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz escorting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (L) during a meeting in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah. — AFP

ANKARA: Three years after accusing Saudi Arabia’s leadership of murder and running a sham trial over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Riyadh on Thursday to mend ties.

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

With Turkey’s economy now facing deepening woes and tough elections looming, Erdogan is pushing to mend Ankara’s strained diplomatic relations.

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

Ankara’s decision this month to transfer its own legal case over the murder to Riyadh was criticised by rights groups and the opposition. But analysts and diplomats say the rapprochement was much needed given the isolation Turkey faced diplomatically.

“Turkey cannot continue this sphere-of-influence game that it has been pursuing since the beginning of the Arab Spring,” said Birol Baskan, Turkey-based non-resident scholar at Washington-based Middle East Institute.

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

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

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

The government has said the Khashoggi trial decision was not political. Before the move, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said conditions for “judicial cooperation” with Riyadh had not been met previously, but the sides were implementing it now. He did not say what had changed.

Turkey’s economy has been ailing for years and a lira crisis erupted late last year due to an unorthodox monetary policy backed by Erdogan. Ankara has since been looking for ways to alleviate the pressure via international rapprochements.

In addition to existing currency swap deals with China, Qatar, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates — worth a total of $28 billion — Ankara is eying a deal with Riyadh. It also seeks investments and contracts, similar to those inked with Abu Dhabi.

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

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2022

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