The brutal murder of a Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul is more than the usually morbid story of the government’s killer squads exterminating citizens critical of the rulers. It has become a major flashpoint in the already hostile relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey and may trigger a wider conflagration in the region. As the international outrage against the murder mounted, US President Donald Trump ended his prolonged silence on the issue. His tweets in the last few days alternated between threats to punish the Saudi Kingdom if it was involved in the murder to exonerating the royal family of any direct responsibility. Trump also despatched his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, earlier this week to speak to the Saudi royal family in Riyadh and President Recep Erdogan in Ankara and defuse the crisis.
Nearly two weeks after the disappearance of Khashoggi, there is no doubt that he was brutally tortured and killed in the consulate and his body taken to the consul general’s house nearby and disposed of there. Khashoggi, once close to the Saudi royal family, had turned openly critical of its policies in recent years. On October 2, Khashoggi went into the consulate to collect some personal papers. After not too long, Turkish media close to the government started putting out information that Khashoggi might have been murdered inside the consulate. This was followed by gory details of the killing. That Ankara did not stop Khashoggi from going to the Saudi consulate despite prior information of the plot suggests Turkey may not have been averse to using him as a pawn in its prolonged confrontation with Saudi Arabia.
The House of Saud and Erdogan have been at daggers drawn since the Arab Spring threw the region into turmoil in 2011. Riyadh believes Turkey is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilise Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt. Erdogan suspects that Saudis backed the failed coup against his government in 2016. Today Riyadh and Ankara are on opposite sides of the civil wars across the Middle East. The US is stepping in to prevent further escalation of the conflict between two of its close allies. It wants to focus the energies of the region on confronting Iran. Pompeo sought to leverage its equities in the two capitals to hammer out a solution in which the Saudis blame the Khashoggi killing on a rogue operation and the Turkish investigation supports that conclusion. In the traditionally Byzantine but increasingly brutal rivalries of the Middle East, everything is possible or nothing is. If Washington can’t make a tenuous compromise stick between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the unintended consequences of Khashoggi’s murder could turn out to be huge.