Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to turn a horrific murder in Istanbul into a catalyst for changing the balance of power in Saudi Arabia and regaining influence across the Middle East.
Having remade the region’s largest democracy in his own image, Erdogan is taking aim at rival Saudi Arabia’s leadership amid international outrage over the death of insider-turned critic and journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Erdogan has vowed to reveal what happened to Khashoggi “in all its nakedness” on Tuesday, just as the Saudis kick off a major investment forum in Riyadh. Directly refuting the Saudi account of the slaying could dramatically raise the stakes for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Turkey claims to have evidence the Washington Post columnist was tortured and dismembered by Saudi assassins who flew in on private jets. Strategic media leaks by anonymous officials suggest Erdogan possesses audio recordings that he’s using to extract concessions from the deep-pocketed Saudis and convince the West the Kingdom is far from a reliable partner.
This is “a gift from God” for Erdogan, a senior western diplomat in Turkey said, echoing the views of several others who spoke on condition of anonymity.
At stake is not just the fraught Saudi-Turkey relationship, or ties between Saudi Arabia and the US, its key western ally. It could raise fresh questions about Prince Mohammed, 33, who’s projected a carefully crafted image as a moderniser abroad while brutally consolidating power in Riyadh. His supporters in Saudi Arabia say he’s firmly in control.
One senior official in Erdogan’s Government said Turkey has never believed the hype about the prince, known as MBS. The Turks have privately warned that Washington risks public embarrassment if it is seen under President Donald Trump to be attempting to help whitewash the circumstances around Khashoggi’s death.
Having first insisted that Khashoggi, 59, left the consulate unharmed on 2 October after requesting a document for his upcoming marriage, it took 18 days and a growing chorus of condemnation for Saudi officials to admit he’d died inside, in what they said was a botched interrogation that turned into in a physical altercation.
Turkish ruling party spokesman Omer Celik on Monday dismissed the Saudi narrative, saying the murder was “well-planned." Still, he rejected the notion the party was “bargaining" with the Saudis over the case.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have traditionally served as the West’s chosen power brokers in the Middle East, but Erdogan’s recent authoritarian turn—including a crackdown on the media—and cooperation with Russia in Syria have strained relations with fellow NATO members.
Turkey has been labelled the world’s “worst jailer” of journalists the past two years by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The organization says 73 journalists were behind bars in Turkey as of December 2017, according to its latest annual report, and “fresh arrests take place regularly.”
Now, however, Erdogan can point to the Khashoggi tragedy as an example of how his democracy, however flawed, is better than any Saudi alternative.
“Turkey has played its hand well, largely because of Saudi incompetence," said Aaron Stein, a senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. “But the internal dynamics in Saudi seem beyond Turkey’s reach; a lot depends on how the US moves."
Turkey’s aware of that, too, and is hoping its campaign will eventually force Trump to call King Salman bin Abdulaziz, 82, and demand he pick a new heir, according to the Turkish official. It’s a long shot, but Turkey’s got fresh support in the US, in this case at least, including from Trump backers like Senator Lindsey Graham.
MBS has “got to go," Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, told Fox News. “Saudi Arabia, if you’re listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose," he said. “But MBS has tainted your country and tainted yourself."
There are signs Trump is wavering in his support for the crown prince, who’s made himself a linchpin of the White House’s anti-Iran strategy and curried favour with Washington by pledging to expand already-massive purchases of US arms. The Saudi narrative of events has been marked by "deception and lies," Trump told the Washington Post, even as he defended the crown prince as a "strong person" and said there was no proof of his personal involvement in Khashoggi’s death.
The hostility between Erdogan and elements of the ruling family in Riyadh dates back to the Arab revolts that began to convulse the region in late 2010. Erdogan had assumed the so-called Arab Spring would lead to the sprouting of like-minded governments across the region as oppressed Islamists swept to power in a democratic wave.
But those dreams were dashed in 2013, when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s first elected president, was overthrown by General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi after a year. The region’s monarchies and dictatorships, which see popular Muslim movements as existential threats, cheered.
“Erdogan put all of his money behind the Brotherhood during the Arab uprisings and he’s lost everything," said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But he gained a lot of enemies: MBS is one of them."
Turkey’s impassioned backing of Mursi and other Brotherhood-inspired movements created a kind of regional anti-Erdogan bloc led by the Saudis, Sisi’s Egypt and the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, or MBZ. Ironically, given Erdogan’s intolerance of criticism, he turned the nation into a leading safe haven for Islamist dissidents, many of whom are considered terrorists at home.
Khashoggi’s murder was in a broader sense an attack on Turkey’s policy of harbouring critics of other Arab regimes, according to Cagaptay.
“Erdogan has the ability to embarrass both MBS and Trump, but he’s saving it for the end," he said. “This is a chance for him to undermine the anti-Erdogan, anti-Brotherhood alliance of MBS, MBZ and Sisi, because MBS has become the weakest link."