On Oct. 2, 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi visited the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to pick up documents he needed for his forthcoming marriage. That day, he disappeared.
The ensuing international crisis has shaken the balance of power in the Middle East, heightening tensions between Saudi Arabia and the US. So far, it’s also clearly benefited one man—Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Khashoggi’s murder on Turkish soil provides Erdoğan with political leverage against Saudi Arabia—his main rival for stewardship of the Muslim world, and an obstacle to better relations with the US. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has positioned himself as a young, progressive, pro-American ally in the region, and has gained huge political clout in Washington over the years. Meanwhile, Turkey has often been in conflict with the US over issues including the Kurdish question in Syria, Iran sanctions, and the alleged 2016 coup against Erdoğan’s regime, which he accused (paywall) the US of supporting.
Now the Khashoggi crisis has given Turkey a leg up over Saudi Arabia, both in its relations with the US and in its fight for regional dominance.
Turkey’s power plays
This was evident in the international headlines of the past week. The Saudis cancelled their annual diplomatic reception last week in Washington, and bin Salman—suspected by many of having known about, or even ordered, Khashoggi’s assassination—did not appear for a planned speech at a major investment conference in Riyadh this morning. (He has since shown up at the conference, although he didn’t give remarks.) Many US business leaders, including JPMorgan Chase chief Jamie Dimon and Ford Motor chairman Bill Ford, backed out of the Riyadh conference informally known as the “Davos of the Desert,” and US Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin also opted to drop out.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan gave a much-anticipated speech this morning that he had promised would shed light on the “naked truth” of what happened to Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate. He under-delivered on that promise, electing not to mention the Saudi crown prince by name or to reveal the audio and video evidence that Turkish officials have said they have.
Some say Erdoğan has orchestrated this rather dramatic reveal because he was holding out for a deal with the Saudis. Writing in New York Magazine’s Intelligencer, Jonah Shepp explains that “By gradually leaking their evidence of Khashoggi’s murder rather than dumping it, the Turkish government may have been giving the Saudis a window of opportunity to buy their silence.” In other words, Khashoggi’s death gives Erdoğan a chance to rebalance the scales with Saudi Arabia. The Guardian’s diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour also made this point:
Turkey is using Khashoggi’s murder for regional leverage
At the same time, Erdoğan is using this moment to regain some credibility with US intelligence officials and Trump. Analysts say that’s why Erdoğan chose this crisis as the moment to release American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was arrested by Turkish authorities over alleged links to the Gulenist movement in Turkey. The case had been straining US-Turkey relations, which now seem to have thawed a bit: Last week, Erdoğan received US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in Ankara, and FBI director Gina Haspel flew to the Turkish capital the day before Erdoğan’s parliamentary speech. And some US officials have raised the possibility (paywall) of lifting the trade sanctions that have crippled the Turkish economy in recent months.
Still, though Erdoğan’s standing with the US may be on the upswing, the Khashoggi affair won’t be enough to reestablish good relations between the US and Turkey, according to Selim Sazak, aPhD candidate at Brown University’s Watson Institute who studies Turkey and contributes to Foreign Policy.
Sazak says that other unresolved issues between the two countries include US support for Kurdish statehood ambitions in northern Syria, Turkey’s support of Iran’s efforts to avoid US sanctions, and the US’s continued refusal to extradite Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen, whom the Turks accuse of masterminding the 2016 coup. “The problems between Turkey and the US is like an entire beach of problems,” says Sazak, “and the Khashoggi affair is a pebble. It’s a big pebble; it’s not unimportant. But there are many other issues that were straining the relations before the Khashoggi affair happened, and they are here to stay.”
Moreover, this is a potentially dangerous situation for Turkey. The country conducts billions of dollars in trade with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the Saudis are a major regional power. So it would not be in Erdogan’s interests to bring about a complete diplomatic rift with the wealthy Gulf countries. And the crown prince is next in line to be king of Saudi Arabia, an issue that Sazak says Erdoğan will be hyper-aware of as he plans his next moves: “MbS is not going to forget. And if this guy takes over the throne in a year or two, he’s going to have this ax to grind forever, and we’ll be dealing with this problem for thirty, forty years.”
Still, as Bethan McKernan, The Guardian’s Turkey correspondent, wrote, Erdoğan’s speech succeeded on several strategic fronts. It satisfied US demands for more time and an international investigation into Khashoggi’s death, assuaged Saudi fears of a big reveal of evidence of MbS’s possible involvement, and positioned him as a defender of press freedom and human rights. She described his speech as “a masterful performance.” Sazak agrees: “This is a fight that’s going to be fought and won in the court of public opinion. And looking at the court of public opinion, Turkey is already winning.”