The bizarre story of the murder of a dissident Saudi Arabian journalist on the premises of the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul appeared to leap towards a conclusion after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been conspicuously silent thus far, announced in a televised address Sunday that his government would reveal within 48 hours the truth “in (its) full nakedness”.
Washington, Riyadh’s most important ally, has been flip-flopping on the unprecedented assassination that has led the international news cycle for over two weeks now. Speaking to The New York Times Thursday, President Donald Trump had expressed confidence in intelligence reports that suggested that the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who had been living in exile in the US since last year, was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But the very next day, Trump said he found a story that the Saudis put out — that Khashoggi had been accidentally killed in a scuffle — credible. In the face of mounting pressure from all quarters including Congress, Trump flipped again, telling The Post on Saturday that “there’s been deception and there’s been lies”.
Just as Trump’s shifts of stand have to do with Saudi Arabia being a key defence partner and its “reformist” Prince the lynchpin of his Middle East strategy, Erdogan’s swing from an obvious attempt to keep the peace with Riyadh to his willingness to strike out against MBS is dictated by what he sees as a geopolitical opportunity.
Politics of the region
Their public posturing notwithstanding, Erdogan and MBS stand on opposite sides in the Middle East’s complex regional rivalries. MBS, who has Saudi Arabia’s vast oil revenues and the backing of the US at his disposal, leads a coalition of regional powers that is opposed to Erdogan and his allies, the Islamist groups who had expected the Arab Spring revolts to catapult them to positions of strength in their individual arenas. In reaching out to grab the unexpected opportunity to injure MBS, Erdogan has sent disquieting ripples through the Prince’s allies in the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Libya. The backlash over Khashoggi’s killing “is the biggest event in the region since the Arab Spring”, The NYT quoted Michael Stephens of the London think tank Royal United Services Institute, as saying. Erdogan appears to have decided to cash in on it.
Politics inside Turkey
Erdogan’s government has launched one of the biggest crackdowns on the media in recent decades, targeting hundreds of journalists and news organisations with imprisonments and shutdowns. In the Khashoggi affair, the President may now have seen an opportunity to present himself as a champion of journalistic freedoms. “What a happy gift that MBS gave Erdogan!” The NYT report quoted Steven Cook, a specialist on Turkey and Saudi Arabia at the American think tank Council on Foreign Relations, as saying. Also, Cook said in the report, Erdogan would be keen to not appear to be buying Riyadh’s story wholesale, especially after the many police leaks to news organisations close to his government.
The broken economy
By leaving open a 48-hour window, Erdogan could be giving Riyadh an opportunity to offer him a deal. This, The NYT report suggested, could perhaps be help for the sinking Turkish lira. Khashoggi and Erdogan were friends — both were former members of the Muslim Brotherhood with many common associates — and the Turkish leader’s delayed response to the murder, even as his government kept the heat on the Saudis through the media leaks, indicates a possibility that he might have been playing for a deal all through. With the Saudis tying themselves in knots trying to explain Khashoggi’s disappearance and the international pressure on MBS escalating very rapidly, Erdogan might have decided he finally has the leverage to extract a good price.