From outcast to preferred partner

NEW YORK: The current schedule of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is as full with top-level meetings as that of any other world leader.

Earlier this week, the 36-year-old met with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo and with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman. This Wednesday, he will travel to Ankara to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and next month, US President Joe Biden is expected in Riyadh.

However, while these meetings exemplify the oil-rich country’s importance on the one hand, they also symbolize the change of Mohammed bin Salman’s political mindset, five years after he became the kingdom’s crown prince on June 21, 2017.

“During his first years, Mohammed bin Salman relied heavily on escalation and provocation, but he has been adjusting his foreign policy strategy in the more recent years,” Sebastian Sons, an expert with the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient, a Germany-based think tank, said. But, after the killing and dismemberment of the US-Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, the international perception of the controversial crown prince changed for the worse.

In particular, it was the Turkish president who vowed to bring justice in the Khashoggi case. “Turkey’s Erdogan was responsible for the deterioration of Mohammed bin Salman’s image in the wider Arab Islamic world after the Khashoggi murder,” said Cinzia Bianco, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But the current rapprochement between Turkey and the fellow Sunni Muslim powerhouse marks a major change in Erdogan’s foreign policy. The reconciliation started earlier this year when Ankara reduced its criticism on Saudi Arabia’s stance on human rights, as well as on the Khashoggi murder.

The next step of reconciliation took place this April, when Turkey moved the trial against 26 Saudi suspects in connection to the Khashoggi case from the Istanbul High Criminal Court to Riyadh. And then, later that month, Erdogan travelled to Saudi Arabia and met with the crown prince in person.

“Turkey has acquiesced to Saudi Arabia’s demands and we will probably see a big reception of Mohammed bin Salman in Turkey which equals a symbolic acceptance of MBS’ leadership over the entire Arab Islamic world,” said Bianco, using the crown prince’s commonly known initials.

According to Turkish media, Erdogan is expecting to sign a series of bilateral agreements in areas such as investment and energy.

However, at a closer look, the drivers of the Turkish change are as political as they are economic.

Following the Khashoggi case, bilateral relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia took a deep blow. In 2021, imports from Turkey plummeted by 62.3% to 3.32 billion riyals ($886 million) in comparison to 2020.

Meanwhile, the previously strong Turkish economy is in free fall and Turkey’s presidential election is coming up next summer. All this as Saudi oil is in high demand in the country, as a consequence of the war in Ukraine. “Primarily what drives the Turkish ‘shift’ is not that different than what drives Biden’s visit to MBS,” said Kemal Kirisci, senior fellow at Washington think tank the Brookings Institution. However, the crown prince’s return into the Turkish fold could be easier than with the United States. In contrast to the US, Erdogan had never directly accused Mohammed bin Salman, but said the killing had been ordered by “the highest levels of the Saudi government.” Biden, however, vowed as presidential candidate in 2019 to make Saudi Arabia “the outcast that they are.”

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