Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman review a military honor guard during a welcome ceremony, in Ankara, Turkey

MBS visits Ankara as Turkey attempts to repair relations with its regional rivals

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for talks in Ankara. The visit comes as Turkey seeks to repair ties with its regional rivals. Steven A. Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington spoke with The World’s host Carol Hills about the significance of the visit.

The World

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in Turkey for talks President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday. The visit is an attempt to normalize relations between the two countries.

Ankara and Riyadh fell out after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 by agents of the Saudi government at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. The two countries were also on opposing sides during the Qatar diplomatic crisis that began in 2017.

Related: Uyghurs in Saudi Arabia risk deportation to China

The visit by Crown Prince Mohammed also comes as Turkey seeks to improve ties with a number of its regional rivals — including Israel, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Turkey has been struggling to contain its economic crisis and falling currency. Meanwhile, Erdoğan hopes to bring more stability to the country ahead of presidential elections next year.

Related: US sales of missiles to Saudis signal business as usual — almost

To discuss the rapprochement, Steven A. Cook, who follows the Turkey-Saudi relationship and is a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, spoke with The World’s host Carol Hills.

Carol Hills: Steven, this isn’t the first visit between MBS, the crown prince, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They visited in Saudi Arabia in April. Do you think this is the more significant of the two visits?
Steven A. Cook: Well, it certainly is a more elaborate visit. President Erdoğan is hosting a state banquet for the Saudi crown prince. And I think the Turks are kind of pulling out the stops in order to court the crown prince. Of course, it’s an extraordinary turnaround since President Erdoğan led the international effort to heap criticism on Mohammed bin Salman after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
It certainly is. What does Turkey get out of fully normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia?
The Turkish economy is in pretty bad shape and President Erdoğan has been forced to make a number of foreign policy U-turns, particularly with countries in the Persian Gulf, seeking finance and investment from those countries, hoping that this will spur Turkish economic growth, help refloat the Turkish lira ahead of presidential elections coming just about a year from now.
So, what specifically does Turkey want from Saudi Arabia?
Well, they certainly want whatever investment and whatever selling off of state assets the Turks are willing to do. But most importantly, they’re interested in a currency swap. This is something that the Turks have been going around the world, seeking to swap their currency, which has lost more than half of its value over the course of the last couple of years, for deposits in the Saudi currency. The Turks have a currency swap agreement with the United Arab Emirates, with China, with Qatar, and it would be beneficial to them if they could enter into such an agreement with the Saudis. It also would signal to international markets a certain amount of confidence in the Turkish economy and President Erdoğan’s stewardship of the Turkish economy.
So, does this visit by MBS to Turkey, does it basically say that the Khashoggi affair is now water under the bridge?
Even before President Erdoğan went to Saudi Arabia, the issue of Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder in Istanbul became water under the bridge when the Turkish authorities transferred the case against those suspected of killing Khashoggi to Saudi authorities, essentially burying it and ensuring that those responsible won’t really be held responsible.
And so, that’s that. Are there any international repercussions for sweeping the Khashoggi case under the rug at this point?
There don’t seem to be any international repercussions. After all, President Biden is going to visit Saudi Arabia in mid-July and he’ll also meet with the Saudi crown prince. So, essentially the memory of Jamal Khashoggi and the memory of his brutal murder will be kept alive by human rights activists, his friends and others. But there’s likely to be very little geopolitical accountability for the crown prince.
MBS has been on a tour of the region in the last week. He’s been to Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey. As you mentioned, he’s also set to receive a visit from President Biden. Do you think this signals the end of his pariah status?
Undoubtedly, that’s the case. But he was never a pariah in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia is an important player, and as the heir to the throne and the keeper of the two holy places, Mecca and Medina, he was never a pariah. Even in the United States, its European partners have inched closer and closer to Mohammed bin Salman. Essentially, President Biden is the last holdout, and I think that his visit will absolutely bring an end to this episode where people sought to avoid being seen with the Saudis at the very least, but the rehabilitation of Mohammed bin Salman is well underway.
And that rehabilitation is because all these countries that are now kind of cozying up to him need what he has.
That’s exactly the case. In the case of the United States, the president is doing everything he can to mitigate the pain that Americans are feeling at the gas pump right now. And Saudi Arabia is really the only country with the spare capacity who can produce oil cheaply enough to moderate prices in the relative short term.
A lot of the major players in the region, like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, they seem to be resolving their issues at the moment in an effort to move things forward. What is happening here?
Yeah, it’s been rather extraordinary. In the Middle East, a year or so ago, people were wondering where the next war would come from and which conflict would produce the next actual shooting war. But countries have determined that they have been unable to impose their will on each other through proxy fights and trying to outmaneuver each other in Libya or Syria or Iraq, other places where there is actual fighting, and have determined that the best way to go about — actually the regional competition is to reduce those tensions. In the case of Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example, where there were very significant differences, and actually a war of words among these governments, the Saudis and Emiratis haven’t exactly fallen in love with the Turks, but they see Turkish vulnerability in the deterioration of the Turkish economy and have sought to gain some leverage with the Turks that way instead of on the battlefields of Libya or Syria.
How should the Biden administration be viewing this meeting between MBS and Erdoğan?
Well, I do think that the Biden administration is somewhat relieved that the president is not the only one who is letting bygones be bygones with Mohammed bin Salman. It is something that I think the administration welcomes. They certainly don’t want to see lots of tension in the Middle East as the president focuses on the conflict in Ukraine. So, less regional tension in the Middle East is better for the United States. At the level of politics and optics, again, the more people who rehabilitate Mohammed bin Salman before the president arrives in Saudi Arabia is probably better for the White House.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

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