Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan surprisingly saw Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who was in Ankara on an official visit, off at the airport on Thursday.
However, this gesture was not reported by the media close to the government, which covers Erdoğan’s every move. Likewise, the surprise farewell was not shared on any of the social media accounts belonging to the presidency or to Erdoğan.
The only video footage of Erdoğan’s last embrace with the prince was shared by the state-run Saudi Press Agency. The criticism of the visit at home and his previous statements about MBS might lie behind Erdoğan’s request that this rare move not be publicized.
MBS arrived in Ankara on Wednesday as part of official visits that also include Egypt and Jordan. He was welcomed by President Erdoğan with a showy official ceremony at the presidential palace. All key ministers of the Turkish cabinet were part of the official welcoming delegation, illustrating the importance given to relations with Saudi Arabia.
The two leaders first had a two-hour tete-a-tete after which a joint meeting was held between the delegations. As expected, the customary news conference with the two leaders did not take place, probably for fear the crown prince might be asked about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi Consulate General in Istanbul in 2018, not by Turkish journalists, but by reporters working for foreign news agencies.
According to a written statement issued by the Presidency’s Directorate of Communications, the official talks between Erdoğan and MBS took place in an atmosphere of sincerity and brotherhood, and views were exchanged on developments in the regional and international arena to which both sides attach importance.
Before bin Salman’s visit, Turkish media speculated that the two countries would agree to a SWAP deal worth $10 billion. However, there has not yet been any confirmation that there will be a direct or indirect flow of money from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.
The Turkish opposition claims that Erdoğan’s government, which is suffering from financial difficulties and a lack of foreign currency, abandoned the trial concerning Khashoggi’s murder in exchange for money. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition party, said on Tuesday that Turkey’s reputation had been jeopardized in exchange for money, adding, “The head of state will embrace the murderer.”
Following the official meetings, a banquet was held in honor of the crown prince accompanied by live Turkish and Arab music. Erdoğan and bin Salman were seated alone at a table, separate from the other guests.
While Erdoğan and the crown prince were not scheduled to meet again, a surprising development took place on Thursday morning. President Erdoğan bade the crown prince farewell at the airport, a gesture he rarely ever makes. In general only the leaders of Azerbaijan and the Central Asian Turkic republics, which are known as sister countries in the Turkish diplomatic tradition, are greeted or sent off by Turkish presidents at the airport.
According to Muhammed Vefa of Turkey’s Milli Gazete newspaper, the only journalist who announced on Twitter that Erdoğan was at the airport, the Turkish president was seen off by the deputy governor of Mecca during his visit to Saudi Arabia in April.
There are several possible reasons why Erdoğan wanted this gesture to remain unknown by the public.
After the murder of Khashoggi in 2018, Erdoğan harshly criticized the Saudi regime, with which he had been angry since the Arab Spring, and especially targeted bin Salman. There was also an intensive campaign in the pro-government media against MBS, whom Erdoğan described as “a bloody-handed murderer.” In an effort to put bin Salman into a more difficult situation, the Turkish government shared the evidence obtained by Turkish intelligence with foreign media outlets. Erdoğan declined the Saudi demand to share the evidence with them and claimed that it would be destroyed.
As a matter of real politick, he could meet with someone he has spoken harsh words about in the past and explain it to the public, but it was an extreme step even for his loyalists seeing him personally send MBS off.
Another possibility expressed on social media is that Erdoğan’s government so badly needs foreign direct investment and a SWAP agreement that Erdoğan felt the need to make such a gesture.
The Saudi side is pleased with Erdoğan’s hospitality. However, the fact that the photographs provided by the official Saudi news agency show Erdoğan looking subdued and the crown prince appearing jubiliant is considered by Turkish social media users to be sending a message.