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Monday July 4th, 2022 2:58AM

Saudi crown prince visits Turkey as countries normalize ties

By The Associated Press
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ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in Ankara on Wednesday, making his first visit to Turkey following the slaying of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeted the prince at the gates of the presidential palace. As Saudi Arabia and Turkey press ahead with efforts to repair ties that were strained by Khashoggi’s killing. Prince Mohammed is on the last leg of a Middle East tour that also took him to Egypt and Jordan.

Erdogan said talks with the prince, who is commonly referred to by his initials MBS, would focus on advancing Turkish-Saudi relations to a “much higher degree.” Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia in April, paying his first visit to the kingdom since 2017, a year before the gruesome killing of Khashoggi by Saudi agents inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.

The crown prince’s convoy arrived at the presidential palace complex escorted by Turkish mounted honor guards. Prince Mohammed and Erdogan smiled and kissed each other on both cheeks before a military band played the national anthems of both their countries.

The president then led his visitor down a turquoise-colored carpet, where the prince greeted the Turkish honor guards.

Efforts by the regional heavyweights to improve their ties come as Turkey faces its worst economic crisis in two decades and is trying to draw investments from wealthy Gulf Arab states. Turkey has also taken steps to improve relations with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel.

Talks with the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan late last year led to investment deals worth $10 billion after years of regional rivalry.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, has been trying to broaden its alliances at a time of strained relations between Riyadh and Washington. The crown prince also seeks to put an end to the scandal over Khashoggi’s killing that damaged his reputation.

Prince Mohammed’s Middle East trip comes before U.S. President Joe Biden’s scheduled trip to the region next month. Biden is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia at the tail end of a July 13-16 trip that includes stops in Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Ayham Kamel, head of the Euroasia Group’s Middle East research team, said the prince’s regional trip this week is “designed to cement Riyadh’s regional role and expand reconciliation efforts" ahead of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

He said it could also serve to mediate between Egypt and Turkey, which are working toward reconciliation after their relations broke down over Turkey’s strong opposition to the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

“Bilateral trade is likely to increase, and there is a good chance that Saudi tourism flows to Turkey will resume,” Kamel wrote. “Talks could also involve military/defense cooperation or arms procurement, as the Saudis are interested in exploring diversifying their suppliers.”

As relations with Turkey frayed over Khashoggi's Oct. 2018 slaying, Saudi Arabia launched an unofficial embargo on Turkish exports, dramatically curbing around $5 billion in bilateral trade. The kingdom also temporarily barred wildly popular Turkish soap operas.

The killing in the consulate sparked global outrage and put pressure on Prince Mohammed, who was said to have approved the operation to kill or capture the journalist, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment. The prince has denied any knowledge of the operation that was carried out by agents who worked directly for him.

While never naming the crown prince, Erdogan has said the operation that killed Khashoggi was ordered by the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.

Khashoggi entered the consulate by appointment to obtain papers to allow him to wed his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who waited for him outside. He never emerged and his body was never found.

Cengiz said she welcomed the improvement in Saudi and Turkish relations but opposed Prince Mohammed getting welcomed to Ankara before Khashoggi's killers were brought to justice.

“As someone who has been wronged, I find it very heartbreaking,” Cengiz told The Associated Press in a written response to questions. “I object to this. Jamal’s body is still missing. I am devastated that this has gone unanswered and that those who killed him remain unpunished.”

Turkey opened a trial in absentia against 26 Saudis suspected in Khashoggi’s killing, but the court earlier this year ruled to halt the proceedings and transfer the case to Saudi Arabia, paving the way for the countries’ rapprochement.

“An apology should have been made both to my country and to me,” Cengiz said.

She also was critical of Biden’s plans to visit Saudi Arabia.

“Forgetting all the promises he made, he is now taking steps for his own country’s interests. He is violating the values that he believes in," Cengiz said. "With this visit, he is making the whole world question his sincerity.”

___

Wieting reported from Istanbul.

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