Turkey’s top diplomat met with his counterpart in Saudi Arabia Tuesday on his first official trip in years, as the country pushes to repair damaged ties with the kingdom that reached a low point over the 2018 killing in Istanbul of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“We discussed in an open and sincere way what can be done in our bilateral relations, the areas where we have problems, how we can resolve them,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters after his meeting with Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.
“We decided to continue our dialogue,” he added.
The regional powerhouses, which have long considered themselves champions of the Palestinian cause, also addressed the spiraling violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“It’s not enough to condemn [the violence[, the [Muslim] community is expecting us to take some steps,” Cavusoglu said. “These kinds of attacks must stop. We have to protect the rights of the Palestinians.”
The two-day visit, the first by a senior Turkish official since the killing of Khashoggi by Saudi agents inside the kingdom’s consulate, also signals Saudi Arabia’s shifting foreign policy. In the past months, Saudi Arabia has moved to defuse tensions with other Mideast powers – driving efforts to end to an embargo against Qatar and even opening secret talks with archenemy Iran.
The flurry of diplomatic activity comes as President Joe Biden has cooled America’s relationship with the kingdom and pushed to restore Iran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which former President Donald Trump scrapped three years ago.
“The Saudis felt the risk they would find themselves cornered with very few friends at their side,” said Cinzia Bianco, a Gulf research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They want to escape that logic and rebuild a regional network that they hope would have Saudi at its heart.”
Khashoggi’s killing inflamed tensions over the political differences between the regional heavyweights, including Turkey’s alleged meddling in regional affairs and sympathy with Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, which Riyadh considers a terrorist group. Turkey also sided with Qatar when it became isolated in the yearslong Arab rift, which ended in January. Qatar’s emir visited Saudi Arabia Monday to meet the Saudi Crown Prince for the first time since the boycott, a powerful sign of the turnaround.
Turkey, for its part, has tried to mend fences with Arab states as it seeks to ease out of international isolation amid a currency crisis and its own tensions with the Biden administration. Last week, a high-level Turkish delegation traveled to Cairo for talks with regional rival Egypt.
In October 2018, Khashoggi entered the consulate in Istanbul for documents that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancee and never came out. Turkish officials allege that the writer, who was critical of the crown prince and the kingdom, was killed by a team of Saudi agents and dismembered with a bone saw.
Turkey repeatedly called for the extradition of the agents and formally charged 20 Saudi officials in absentia. But in recent months the government has toned down its denunciation of Riyadh’s closed-door trial of the suspects, with a Turkish official saying last month that the country would “respect” the Saudi court ruling.
As tensions simmered last year, Ajlan al-Ajlan, a prominent Saudi businessman and chairman of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce, called for a mass boycott of Turkish goods that gained momentum on social media.
Turkish exporters soon complained their products faced unexplained customs delays. Manufacturers accused Saudi authorities of denying their Turkish employees work visas, withholding progress payments to contractors and creating other complications.
The Saudi government denied any official boycott, but grumbles in Turkey gained credence when the Saudi statistics authority reported that 2020 Turkish imports plummeted by over 95% to an all-time low of $13.5 million, down from $271.9 million the year before.