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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Group of 20 summit in Rome in 2021.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Group of 20 summit in Rome in 2021. (Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg)

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travels to Saudi Arabia on Thursday, in his first visit there since Saudi agents in Istanbul killed and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, sparking a deep, years-long rift between the two governments.

Erdogan, who called Khashoggi a friend, once led a global charge to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the 2018 murder, accusing the “highest levels” of the Saudi government of responsibility. But the Turkish leader has more recently sought to mend relations with the Saudis as he searches for ways to ease a crippling economic crisis, which was worsened by an unofficial Saudi boycott of Turkish goods.

Erdogan’s office made no advance announcement of the visit. In a short statement Thursday, the presidency said it would last two days and focus on “bilateral relations” as well as “views on regional and international matters.” A spokesman for the presidency did not immediately respond to questions about whether Erdogan would meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler and the man the CIA said had likely ordered Khashoggi’s killing.

The crown prince has denied ordering the killing, which Saudi officials have blamed on operatives who went rogue.

In the days and weeks after the murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Erdogan was relentless in chastising the kingdom, first demanding the Saudis prove their assertions Khashoggi had left the consulate alive, and later, that they identify the location of the journalist’s remains, which have never been found.

Turkey issued arrest warrants for Saudi officials implicated in the killing of Khashoggi, who was a contributing columnist to the The Washington Post. It started prosecuting Saudi murder suspects in absentia, in proceedings held in public - while criticizing a parallel trial held in Saudi Arabia behind closed doors. Erdogan scolded the United States as well, accusing the Trump administration of withholding information that would shed light on the case.

Erdogan’s reaction was partly seen as pique at a foreign government for carrying out such a brazen act in Turkey. But it was also in keeping with the Turkish leader’s confrontational stance toward regional rivals like Saudi Arabia, at a moment when Ankara was still vying for influence around the Middle East.

Erdogan also seemed to have little affection for Mohammed, the young crown prince, who had referred to Turkey as part of a regional “triangle of evil” along with Iran and Islamist groups. Some speculated the Turkish leader was trying to drive a wedge between the crown prince and his father, King Salman, and to sideline the young leader.

But Mohammed has only grown stronger since the killing, having consolidated his position in Saudi Arabia, according to analysts. And Turkey’s economic problems have gotten worse, marked by a sagging currency and runaway inflation. The downturn has damaged Erdogan’s prospects for reelection while prompting him to mend relations with erstwhile rivals, including the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

Earlier this month, Turkey agreed to stop prosecuting the Saudi defendants and to transfer the court case to Saudi Arabia - clearing the way for Thursday’s visit by Erdogan.

“Today is a dark day for those who have spent more three years campaigning for justice for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Agnes Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a statement after Turkey’s justice minister announced his intention to halt the Turkish case.

“What has happened to Turkey’s declared commitment that justice must prevail for this gruesome murder and that this case would never become a pawn in political calculations and interest?”

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