On Tuesday, October 23, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave much-awaited remarks at a meeting of Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, on Turkey’s ongoing investigation into the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Speaking in Ankara, Erdogan called the murder of Khashoggi both “planned” and “brutal” imploring Saudi Arabia to extradite the 18 it arrested in connection with the case to Turkey to face trial.
In addition to the arrests, the Saudis also announced they fired five people within the government for their role in the plot, two of which had close connections with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS).
Erdogan’s claims directly contradict the latest spin coming from Saudi officials, who have changed their account of what happened numerous times since Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
Spokespeople for the Saudis are now claiming Khashoggi’s death was the result of a fight that broke out after Khashoggi entered the consulate, a result of an operation gone wrong, which was planned by “rogue” Saudi agents.
Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations on a razor’s edge
President Erdogan’s remarks on Tuesday came after weeks of leaked information about Khashoggi’s murder being dribbled out to both Turkish and the international press. The leaks appear to be carefully formulated in such a way as to keep pressure on Saudi Arabia for answers.
The Turkish government closely monitors most press outlets and often uses them as a mouthpiece to express pro-government sentiments.
The pressure Turkey has applied in this case has been extremely effective in discrediting the Saudis’ official recounting of events.
The diplomatic clash over the killing of Khashoggi is just the latest conflict to unfold between the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both significant regional powers vying to increase their sphere of influence across the Middle East.
One can trace rising tensions between the two countries back to 2013 when a military coup in Egypt forced Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically-elected leader, out of power. Morsi belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization championing a form of political Islam which had close ties to Erdogan and the Turkish government.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, had labeled the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and immediately pledged significant economic support behind Egypt’s newly-forming government in the wake of the coup. General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt’s current president, eventually took the reins.
Erdogan has also publically sided with Qatar in the ongoing Qatari diplomatic crisis which has seen Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt sever diplomatic ties with Qatar. The Gulf countries justified their move by alleging that Qatar supports terrorist networks, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar responded to Turkey in kind, pledging economic support as Turkey underwent a financial crisis earlier this year.
There are, however, significant economic ties between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, underscoring just how complicated the geo-politics of the Middle East truly are. An analysis by the Middle East Institute explains, “Erdogan saw Riyadh as an important actor in his efforts to reduce Turkey’s dependence on European investment.”
This came amid a high profile spat between Turkey and the EU, as negotiations for the country to join the union stalled in 2016.
Saudi citizens are some of the top buyers of real estate in Turkey, and Erdogan’s government has previously expressed interest in cooperating with the Saudis to develop the kingdom’s infrastructure.
Erdogan has played his cards very strategically thus far, giving deference to King Salman while also publically refuting the Saudi narrative. It remains to be seen to what extent he is willing to escalate tensions further. If the widely-reported audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder exists, it has not yet leaked publically, and perhaps it is Erdogan’s final trump card.
US-Saudi Arabia Relations: A turning point?
The murder of Khashoggi and the prolonged fight for the truth about what happened inside the Saudi consulate on October 2 has forced the US to take a new, critical look at its long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi’s death specifically cast a harsh spotlight on MBS, who had been widely praised in the West before October as the type of reformer the kingdom needed as oil revenues dwindle, calling into question Saudi Arabia’s economic future.
President Trump had hailed MBS as a key partner in the Middle East, particularly when it came to countering Iranian influence. A New Yorker profile notes that the president’s son-in-law and close advisor Jared Kushner developed a close working relationship with MBS, following Kushner’s repeated visits to the Middle East.
Western media gave MBS credit for lifting the ban on both women driving and the opening of cinemas. At the same time, Saudi authorities arrested en masse the activists who pushed for these same reforms.
Another unseemly story revealed the crown prince’s authoritarian side in November of 2017, when MBS sent Saudi police to arrest more than 200 of the country’s wealthiest citizens, among them 11 members of the Saudi royal family.
The government held all detainees on various corruption charges and ordered them to sign over vast amounts of wealth in order to secure their release. All told, detainees turned over more than $100 billion in assets to the Saudi government. The New Yorker reports that at least one detainee died under duress from interrogation.
MBS is also largely responsible for the Saudi military’s pronounced role in the Yemeni civil war, regularly supporting embattled pro-government forces fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in a brutal, drawn-out conflict.
Although all of these stories have been well-reported across the world, none have had quite the same staying power as the murder of Khashoggi, who had contributed columns to the Washington Post for just under a year at the time of his death.
In response to the slaying, members of the US Congress have issued a bipartisan call to cease all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, currently the top importer of American arms in the world.
The world has largely seen President Trump as sympathetic to the Saudi portrayal of events, although Riyadh’s ever-shifting narrative has forced the president to give some ground as international outrage grows.
“They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly and the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups,” said Trump, speaking to reporters on October 23. “They had the worst cover-up ever.”
It remains true that many diplomats working in the Trump administration continue to view the Saudis as a lynchpin for US foreign policy in the Middle East. Washington’s relationship with Riyadh goes back long before Trump took control in 2016.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an opening round of US sanctions on Saudi Arabia, including visa restrictions on the 21 suspects Saudi Arabia arrested last week. Critics of the administration saw the move as once again ceding ground to the Saudi account of events which laid blame at the feet of supposed “rogue operators.”
The big question going forward is whether the murder of Khashoggi represents a temporary setback between the longstanding US-Saudi alliance or perhaps signals a greater shift, one which could have long lasting and perhaps unexpected impacts felt across the Middle East.
By Josh Babb