Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. (Source: Reuters)
Turkish officials have been leaking lurid details for weeks about the assassination and reported dismemberment of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, keen to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia, has until now held his tongue.
On Sunday, the Turkish president broke his silence, promising that within 48 hours he would remove the lid completely from what his spokesmen are now calling a Saudi cover-up. “We will reveal it,” he said in a televised speech. “It will be revealed in full nakedness.”
With international outrage at Khashoggi’s killing increasingly focused on the potential culpability of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Erdogan appears to sense an opportunity.
Khashoggi’s status as a U.S. resident and a Washington Post columnist, along with the Saudis’ hamfisted handling of the scandal, have presented Erdogan with an unexpected chance to inflict damage on the crown prince — a cordial ally in public but a fierce rival in private.
The Turkish president may now risk antagonizing a country that is among the richest and most influential in the region. But he may have concluded that risk is worth the chance to strike a blow in a broader regional conflict. Crown Prince Mohammed is the linchpin of a coalition of Middle Eastern states hostile to Erdogan and his Islamist allies.
Erdogan has cast himself as a champion of the Arab Spring revolts and the election-minded Islamists who hoped to ride them to power.
By hinting that he might reveal details of Khashoggi’s killing that could implicate Crown Prince Mohammed, Erdogan is sending tremors of anxiety through much of the far-flung coalition that had lined up to crush the Islamists — from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf to the anti-Islamist strongmen in Egypt and eastern Libya, all backed by Saudi Arabia.
The backlash over the Khashoggi killing “is the biggest event in the region since the Arab Spring,” said Michael Stephens, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank.
For weeks after Khashoggi disappeared, Crown Prince Mohammed and other Saudi officials insisted that he had left the consulate freely and that they knew nothing of his whereabouts.
Read | UK, France and Germany press Saudi for facts to back up Jamal Khashoggi explanation
Then, in a new version of events, the royal court said that in fact Khashoggi, 59, had been accidentally strangled in a brawl with Saudi intelligence agents. The agents’ mission, the Saudis say, was to persuade him to return voluntarily to the kingdom.
The crown prince, they insisted had no knowledge of what happened and did not get answers about it for more than two weeks. “There obviously was a tremendous mistake made,” Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Sunday in an interview on Fox News, adding, in a message, to Khashoggi’s relatives: “Our condolences go out to them. We feel their pain.”
If the Saudis hoped their new explanation would limit the furor, they were surely disappointed. President Donald Trump, who initially called the Saudi claims credible, sounded increasingly dubious. “Obviously, there’s been deception and there’s been lies,” the president said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Their stories are all over the place.”
Others were blunter.
“They would have been better off saying that Colonel Mustard did it in the library with the candlestick,” said Steven Cook, who studies Turkey and Saudi Arabia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Who would want to be associated with this story?”
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post newspaper, who went missing after going to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. (AP Photo)
Erdogan, he argued, might have looked ridiculous to his own domestic political base if he had gone along with it, especially after the many leaks to pro-government newspapers about the killing.
Now Erdogan, whose government is ranked among the biggest jailers of journalists, can enjoy a novel turn as a defender of the free press, by calling for justice for Khashoggi. “What a happy gift that MBS gave Erdogan!” Cook said, using the common shorthand for the crown prince.
Some noted that, for all his bluster, Erdogan was still giving a 48-hour warning to the Saudis and holding back from providing details about Khashoggi’s death. The delay, some argued, might be intended to allow for some kind of accommodation with the Saudis.
One possibility: The value of the Turkish currency has plunged under the burden of debts built up during a long building boom, and the oil-rich Saudis might quietly help prop up the exchange rate. “He may be giving the Saudis another 48 hours to come up with a better deal of some kind,” said Stephens, of the London think tank.
But any arrangement to limit further Saudi embarrassment, he said, will surely come at a higher price now that the royal court has so mismanaged its previous statements.
In part because of the kingdom’s importance as a regional power and a trading partner, Erdogan has long treated Saudi Arabia very differently from the United Arab Emirates, its closest Arab ally.
Read | Amid scepticism, Saudi official provides another version of Khashoggi death
The Emirates, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, is widely regarded as the leader of a campaign across the region against election-minded Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, which is closely allied with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.
The Emirates worked in tandem with Saudi Arabia to try to turn back the Arab Spring uprisings. They lobbied Washington, used their Pan-Arab news media and gave financial support to old-school authoritarians around the region.
As Brotherhood-style Islamist parties rose in power after the Arab Spring uprisings, the Emirates tried to push its Arab allies as well as the United States and Britain to outlaw the Brotherhood as a terrorist group. Saudi Arabia did so, but the Americans and the British have not.
Last year, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia also worked together to isolate and blockade Qatar over its support for Brotherhood-style Islamists. Erdogan and the UAE are more or less openly hostile to each other. Turkey helped support Qatar in the face of the blockade by sending troops and airlifting in goods.
Pro-government Turkish newspapers often link the Emirates to an attempted coup against Erdogan in 2016. And last December, Erdogan traded public insults with the Emirates’ foreign minister, Prince Abdullah bin Zayed, after Prince Abdullah reposted a tweet describing an early 20th century Ottoman general as one of “Erdogan’s ancestors,” saying he had robbed the holy city of Medina, in Saudi Arabia.
“Know your place,” Erdogan shot back at the foreign minister in a speech, referring to the Emiratis as “miserable people.”
The Saudi crown prince is widely viewed as an Emirati protégé. The Emiratis were his early champions in Washington and around the region as Crown Prince Mohammed moved in a period of three years from relative obscurity to consolidate his power over the kingdom, unseating a previous crown prince more critical of the UAE and less hostile to political Islam.
Since then, Crown Prince Mohammed has advocated reforms on the model of the relatively cosmopolitan but still authoritarian Emirates city-states Dubai and Abu Dhabi. And he has readily joined in the anti-Islamist blockade of Qatar and in the arrests of Brotherhood sympathizers within Saudi Arabia.
But even as Erdogan railed against the UAE, he maintained cordial relations with Crown Prince Mohammed, mindful perhaps that at 33 he might rule the kingdom for five decades to come. In the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s disappearance, that pattern still held.
Erdogan was a personal friend of Khashoggi’s, who had worked for decades as a star commentator in the Saudi-owned media and was also a former Brotherhood member with many friends in the group.
Yet even after Erdogan was briefed on intelligence reports that Saudi agents had assassinated and dismembered his friend, Turkish officials said, the president refrained from publicly accusing the Saudis of the crime, to avoid a full diplomatic rupture. He agreed to cooperate in a joint investigation with the Saudis into Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Turkish officials noted that Khashoggi was not a Turk so his killing did not necessarily need to be a Turkish issue. Some hinted broadly that Erdogan might be willing to move on if the Saudis would offer almost any explanation that acknowledged Khashoggi’s killing — even blaming it on a “rogue operation” to deflect blame from Crown Prince Mohammed.
But after the apparent failure of the Saudi’s latest narrative — which, as expected, attributed the killing to a rogue operation — Erdogan began sending very different signals. Instead of accepting the Saudi explanation, pro-government commentators commended Erdogan’s quiet pressure on the Saudis to own up to at least an accidental killing of Khashoggi’s killing.
The pro-government news outlets are now further demanding that the Saudis admit that senior figures in royal court ordered the assassination, as Turkish officials speaking on the condition of anonymity have said they can show through audio recordings and other evidence of the killing.
Some are even calling for Crown Prince Mohammed to held to account, stripped of his power or removed from his position as heir to throne.
Erdogan, too, made an apparent swipe in that direction Sunday. “And right now, what does the world say about whom?” he said, in an apparent reference to the crown prince. “We will look into all of this.” “All of this must be explained with all the details,” he said of the lingering questions about the killing.
He promised to answer them in a televised speech to Parliament in two days. “On Tuesday,” he said, “I will tell this very differently in my parliamentary group speech. I will go into detail.”