Turkish forensic stands next to the Saudi flag, on the roof of the Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on October 15th 2018, during the investigation over missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Photo AFP
After Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate on 2 October 2018 and disappeared, weeks of media coverage, geopolitical wrangling and speculation followed over if, and then how, Khashoggi was killed in the minutes and hours after he entered.
At the center of the affair has been the showdown between the Turkish government, which has taken the lead in demanding answers from Riyadh, and that of Saudi Arabia, which has employed a mix of lies, obstructions and diversions to obscure the truth about Khashoggi’s fate.
For centuries, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have competed for regional influence, formerly in the religious sphere as the Ottomans and later the Al Saud family served as guardians of Mecca and Medina – two of the holiest sites in Islam. Later, the geopolitical landscape of the 20th century saw the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the economic dominance of petrodollars and the Cold War influence of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) lay down the foundations for new competition between these two nations.
For much of the second half of the 1900sf, this competition was mainly over foreign investment or political support – namely, winning US backing in regional clashes such as threats from Syria (for Turkey) or Iraq (for Saudi Arabia). But it was in the 2000s that this competition was really ignited. With an Islamist government in power in Turkey, suddenly Ankara and Riyadh were chasing a similar religious sphere of influence, both attempting to spread their own version of political Sunni Islam: fundamentalist Saudi Wahhabism or the Ottoman-rooted nostalgia of the Justice and Development party’s Islam. With no obvious political hegemon in the Middle East, both Ankara and Riyadh (as well as Tehran) have jostled for dominance. Turkey has sought political friendships with Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, while Saudi Arabia has used its economic clout to gain new partnerships, mainly with governments like that of Egypt. With no obvious ‘victor’, competition for regional dominance continues to this day.
So how have both countries exploited the Khashoggi affair and what does it mean for their relations?
A Public Relations Nightmare
Since initial reports of Khashoggi’s disappearance were published, the Saudis have attempted to maintain strict control of the media narrative surrounding his fate. They have done this both by keeping the prying media at bay, as well as simultaneously trying to give out just enough information so as to retain the illusion of innocence and cooperation.
Days after alarm bells were publicly sounded, the Saudi consul general gave a team from press agency Reuters a lengthy tour of the consulate buildings. Cupboard doors were flung open and, with a certain comical theatricality, the consul general peered behind the doors to show Khashoggi was not hiding in the building.
The Saudis have tried hard to gain and preserve a new image, one that is distant from the tired (but all-too-often true) stereotype of ‘torturous Middle Eastern regime’. This is a Saudi government that is acutely aware of the power of optics and public relations (PR). Their de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who oversees the day-to-day running of the kingdom, embarked on a two-week tour of the US in 2017 as part of a broader PR campaign. Seen with a gamut of US celebrities and business leaders, often sporting a baseball cap and jeans rather than the traditional Saudi thawb, MBS was trying to win over not just their leaders, but Americans themselves.
Right Time and Place?
Although Khashoggi’s murder was seemingly a crime of opportunity – the Saudi writer was applying for paperwork to get married when a Saudi official seized upon the opportunity to lure him into a trap – it was, in many ways, ideally timed.
In terms of international alliances, Turkey is in one of its weakest positions in decades. After several years of widely-publicised human rights abuses, President Erdogan is perceived as a necessary, albeit disliked, ally by western alliances like NATO and the European Union (EU). Turkey’s relations with both the US and Europe are strained.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is enjoyed a rosy period of close ties – political, economic and ideological – with the US. After nearly a decade of wary relations with an Obama administration that seemed keen on concluding a nuclear deal with Riyadh’s arch-enemy Iran, Riyadh and the Trump administration are seemingly best friends.
And while Turkey is a key regional player, it is far from a world power. As risky as this Saudi operation was, there was surely some consideration on the part of the Saudis that in the worst-case scenario, where the murder was uncovered, Turkey would have only limited means to strike back at the brazen Saudi assassination. Riyadh heads a coalition of Arab states forged on the basis of a common opposition to Iran and Qatar (which is allied with Turkey), cooperation in the war in Yemen and a shared intense dislike of Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood that Turkey has sheltered. Thus, when making their calculations, Saudi Arabia would surely have been aware they would, in the region at least, be largely insulated from Turkish ire. However, Riyadh grossly underestimated the international repercussions of killing Khashoggi, a well-known columnist for the prominent US newspaper, The Washington Post.
From day one of Khashoggi’s disappearance, the Turkish government criticised his fate and pursued those behind his murder. Rumours of the Turks having video and audio recordings of Khashoggi’s murder began circulating soon after his disappearance captured international attention. For a time, there was no sign of these recordings, which were referenced by a host of media outlets, but mentions of them refused to budge from international headlines. Eventually it was revealed that, while they had held the ‘smoking gun’ since the very beginning of the search for his killers, it was only weeks after Khashoggi’s death that the Turks finally shared the tapes they had secretly made from within the consulates.
While initially it seemed that this delay may have been to protect themselves from international outrage at their covert surveillance of the Saudis, and their contravention of international norms around the sanctity of consular space, over time it appears Turkey was playing a savvier game. Turkish intelligence agencies have been awash with leaks to foreign and domestic press contacts on a scale unusual in an age of purges and increasing authoritarianism in Turkey. The obvious conclusion is that these leaks are state-sanctioned, or even controlled, to ensure a steady stream of information that will coax the Saudis into confessing their role or meeting a compromise that pleases Ankara.
By withholding the tapes but leaking information about their existence, Turkey kept a steady drip-drop of pressure on Saudi Arabia. With the constant fear of Ankara releasing the tapes and sabotaging Riyadh’s attempts to deny or conceal their involvement, Saudi Arabia has been caught in a very public tight spot. Forced to repeatedly offer feasible explanations that would then be torn apart by subsequent Turkish leaks, Saudi Arabia’s credibility and reputation have been damaged. For Saudi Arabia, a country currently obsessed with its international image, this must have surely been a uniquely painful experience at the hands of its rival.
As it became clear that there was little international enthusiasm for an investigation and court case in Turkey, Ankara pivoted to demand a full international inquiry. International courts have little success in implementing legally-binding decisions or punishments; however, Saudi Arabia has taken a prominent role in multilateral human rights organisations in recent years and the exposure and revisiting of Saudi foul play on the global stage for the duration of a lengthy court process would be immensely painful for a newly image-conscious Riyadh.
Perhaps more importantly for Turkey, this entire affair has been the perfect opportunity to massage their own public image. For once on the right side of international opinion after years of (ongoing) purges, minority repression and attacks on human rights and democratic pillars, Ankara has been quick to proclaim itself the true champion of justice in the Khashoggi affair. Senior Turkish politicians have repeatedly lambasted the assassination of a journalist, despite their own woeful record of respecting free speech and of imprisoning journalists. These rhetorical attacks against Saudi Arabia have been incredibly myopic given Turkey’s own record towards journalists, but the performance has been a masterclass in public relations – with President Erdogan even penning an op-ed in The Washington Post, Khashoggi’s own paper, to broadcast his anger to the US public.
The Saudi-Turkish Future
Turkey has shown no intention throughout this saga to let up the pressure on Saudi.
Aware that an international investigation will hold the most weight and carry the most legitimacy, above the fray of these bilateral tensions, Ankara has ultimately backed calls for an international investigation. This appears to be a strategic move on the part of Turkey to keep the pressure up on Riyadh. While an international investigation may not yield any further details than have already been leaked or released into the public domain, the investigation’s conclusion, which would almost certainly land heavily on Saudi heads, would be amplified by its independent nature. This strategic gambit is solid evidence of Turkey’s all-in diplomatic exploitation of this crisis.
The Khashoggi affair has laid bare the already-broiling geopolitical tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Although Jamal Khashoggi’s apparent murder did not itself hold geopolitical importance, it was seized upon by Turkey as an ideal opportunity to wound a regional competitor. This victory was carefully implemented, forcing the Saudis through a torturous month of unwanted toxic attention in headlines around the world. However, this wounding blow was by no means lethal, for while international condemnation was swift and severe, it has caused little actual impact to the vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s long-term alliances and (arms) trading partnerships. Likewise, while Turkey is enjoying basking in the positive glow of international support for its public crucifixion of Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s assassination, this cannot last forever.