Saudi Prince on regional tour

Riyadh’s de facto leader has visited Turkey, Jordan and Egypt during his first official trip outside the Gulf region in over three years.

By Erin Viner

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (also known as MBS) was in Turkey today for talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in an apparent effort to fully normalize ties that were severely strained after the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. At the time, Erdoğan accused the “highest levels” of the Saudi government of responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment at the kingdom’s consulate in the Turkish capital.

Prince Mohammed, who has denied any involvement in the murder, is now taking steps to rehabilite his image beyond the Gulf. Today’s visit also coincides with Erdoğan’s mission to secure financial support to help relieve his nation’s beleaguered economy in a bid to shore up his popularity ahead of competitive upcoming presidential elections slated to be held by June 2023.

The Turkish lira is suffering devaluation as inflation has soared beyond 70%, which could be revived by an infusion of Saudi funds and foreign currency.

While no formal statements were slated, a Turkish official commented that the two countries have agreed to lift bilateral restrictions on trade and flights, in addition to halt broadcast of controversial television programs and a cessation of mutual negative media coverage against the other.

 Erdoğan stated last week that today’s talks would be held on a “much higher level” that his one-on-one talks with Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia back in April, as part of the Turkish President’s months-long push to restore relations between the regional powers, during which Turkish prosecution related to Khashoggi’s murder was dropped.

The leaders are also expected to discuss the potential sale of Turkish armed unmanned aircraft (UAVs, drones) to the Saudi Kingdom.

As part of his mission to attract Western leaders and private business partners, while shifting geopolitics and a focus on social and economic reforms in an effort to reduce criticism of Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights, MBS been leveraging his nation’s vast wealth and oil production capacity

Yesterday, Prince Mohammed met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II to discuss conflicting positions on regional conflicts and unfulfilled pledges of aid. Ahead of the visit, the Saudi Crown Prince was cited as saying the talks would “push relations to a new phase.”

“There are large opportunities in Jordan that we are keen to actively participate in and such investments will bring benefits to both countries,” the prince said.

The Jordanian economy has also been negatively affected by reverberations of the Russia-Ukraine War. The Hashemite Kingdom, which imports most of its energy, has been hard-it by escalating fuel prices as well as the rising cost of food imports.

Amman’s officials and business community are hoping MBS will help unblock at least $3 billion (about € 2,852 billion) of investment projects that the Saudis committed to in recent years that were never met.

Riyadh, which has invested more that $12 billion (€ 11,411 billion) in Jordan and once previously came to the nation’s aid with supplemental cash, has since avoided direct financial contributions.

Now, said one senior Jordanian source, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), is seeking to invest billions of dollars in vast infrastructure projects in Jordan, including an estimated $2.5 billion (€ 2, 377) railway project.

King Abdullah also discussed with Prince Mohammed next month’s summit in Jeddah where United States President Joe Biden will meet with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as well as Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. Biden is set to visit the region in July as his administration struggles to combat historically high gasoline prices, in addition to coalescing a united front against Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.

Biden’s trip will include a first stop in Israel, which shares with Saudi Arabia and Jordan deep concerns about Iran‘s nuclear ambitions and what they see as Tehran’s destabilizing role in the region – which is certain to top the agendas of matters for discussion.

Saudi-Jordanian ties were also strained by accusations that Saudi Arabia was involved in an alleged plot by King Abdullah’s half-brother Prince Hamza bin Hussain to launch a palace coup. Prince Hamza remains under house arrest, while former Jordanian senior official Bassem Awadallah – who later became one of bin Salman’s closest advisers – was convicted of involvement in the conspiracy and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

During a 2021 CNN interview, King Abdullah did not deny a role in the alleged plot but said allegations were not productive. Meanwhile, Jordanian officials say the matter has been relegated to the past.

While in Egypt, the Crown Prince signed 14 deals worth $7.7 billion (€ 7,322 billion) ranging from renewable energy to petroleum, food and fintech.

The agreements also reportedly include a $1.5 billion (€ 1,427 billion) agreement between Saudi Arabia’s Acwapower  and the Egyptian Electricity Holding Company to build a wind power plant, the development of the multi-purpose terminal at Egypt’s Damietta port, Egypt’s General Authority for Investment and Free Zones and the establishment of a $150 million (€ 142,661 million) “pharmaceutical city” by Egypt’s Pharco Pharmaceuticals in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has provided billions in support since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in 2014.

Saudi Arabia deposited $5 billion (€ 4,755 billion) in Egypt’s central bank last March, while the Saudi-based Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC) has started disbursing $3 billion (€  2,852 billion) of funds to help bolster Cairo’s import commodities.

Egypt was struggling with a major budget deficit even prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Outbreak of the war introduced further economic fall-out including higher commodity prices, falling tourism revenues and the exit of investment in emerging markets.

Other topics of discussion featured bilateral trade, investment and security matters, in addition to the Biden summit in Saudi Arabia.