Saudi Leader Visits Turkey for First Time Since Khashoggi Murder

The Saudi crown prince visited Turkey on Wednesday for the first time since Saudi agents murdered the prominent dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, driving a deep rift between the two regional powers.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, was scheduled to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey at the presidential palace in Ankara in what will be another step toward mending fences between two Middle Eastern heavyweights, whose rivalry has played out across conflicts from Libya and Egypt to the Persian Gulf.

Mr. Erdogan had already moved to recalibrate relations with a visit to Saudi Arabia in April, when he publicly embraced Prince Mohammed and announced what he called a “new period of cooperation” between their countries.

Crippled by soaring inflation at home, Mr. Erdogan has been courting regional leaders to bolster the Turkish economy before presidential elections next year.

In confirming the visit last week, Mr. Erdogan said he hoped his one-on-one meeting with Prince Mohammed would present an opportunity to take relations to a higher level.

The rapprochement follows similar moves by other countries to rebuild ties with Saudi Arabia, which drew global outrage over the grisly killing of Mr. Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia.

A 2018 assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Prince Mohammed had approved and ordered the hit team that killed and dismembered Mr. Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. The columnist had gone there to pick up some paperwork he needed to marry his fiancée.

But Prince Mohammed, 36, has denied overseeing the operation or having any foreknowledge of it.

The murder swiftly ruptured ties between the two countries, which were already strained by a Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, a Turkish ally.

The Turkish government angered Saudi Arabia when it immediately opened a vigorous investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s murder and briefed international news media on lurid details of the case, dribbling them out slowly over time to mounting levels of international outrage. Mr. Erdogan said the order to dismember Mr. Khashoggi had come from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government, but stopped just short of accusing the prince directly.

With Turkey facing pressing economic hardships at home, however, Mr. Erdogan decided to step up cooperation with Saudi Arabia in April when he endorsed the transfer of Mr. Khashoggi’s murder trial to Saudi Arabia and traveled to the Persian Gulf kingdom for the first time since the murder.

The meeting in Turkey is the latest stop for Prince Mohammed on a regional tour in which he is meeting with leaders across the Middle East, including Jordan and Egypt, seeking to end a period of international isolation for his country.

During an earlier stop in Egypt, billed as a chance for the prince and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to discuss regional cooperation, the prince signed 14 investment deals with the country worth $7.7 billion across industries including technology, energy, food, pharmaceuticals and media.

Wednesday’s visit to Turkey comes shortly before Prince Mohammed is expected to meet in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with President Biden, who as a candidate vowed to make the kingdom a “pariah” over Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.

But Mr. Biden, who announced a ban on Russian oil and natural gas in response to Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine, has since made efforts to rebuild relations with Saudi Arabia as he seeks an increase in the kingdom’s oil output to stabilize surging gas prices.

Mr. Erdogan’s thawing of relations with Saudi Arabia has drawn criticism from political opponents and rights activists at home, who have denounced the rapprochement as a moral surrender. Last week, the Turkish governmentannounced that it had dropped all charges against suspects in the Khashoggi case, according to a court verdict reviewed by The Times.

Hatice Cengiz, Mr. Khashoggi’s fiancée at the time of his death, said on Twitter that “the political legitimacy” that Prince Mohammed had gained through his recent meetings with world leaders would not “change the fact that he is a murderer.”

The leader of Turkey’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party, denounced the visit in a televised statement to members of the Turkish Parliament on Tuesday.

“You are ruining Turkey’s reputation,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, said, addressing the remark to the prince. “The leader of the Republic of Turkey will embrace the man who ordered the killing.”

Mr. Erdogan’s motivations are largely economic. Turkey relies on Russia for much of its natural gas. The president has warned that the economy, which has been battered by the worst inflation in two decades — in excess of 70 percent — would suffer even more severely if he were to cut off energy imports from Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine, as other U.S. allies have done.

Saudi Arabia and Russia are each among the world’s leading oil producers, so Turkey cannot afford to be at odds with both.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have long competed for dominance of the Sunni Muslim countries of the Middle East.

Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party was born out of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement with a vast following. The Saudis regard the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

The Arab Spring uprisings that spread across the Middle East a decade ago helped establish the Brotherhood as an organized political force in countries like Egypt.

The Saudi government sought to subvert the uprisings, which it saw as a direct threat to its dominance in the region. Turkey aligned itself with Qatar to back populist movements and Islamist groups.