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The Khashoggi murder and Turkish-Saudi relations

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Binnur Ozkececi-Taner
Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist, was killed in Istanbul after walking into the consulate of Saudi Arabia on Oct. 2. His murder came after a string of atrocities committed by the Saudi regime against religious and other minority groups, as well as human rights activists in and outside of the Kingdom. The killing of Khashoggi received international attention not only because of the gruesome details about how he was killed but also because of his status “at the heart of an online army of Saudi activists fighting the misinformation campaign” led by the Saudi regime.

While Khashoggi’s murder is atrocious and demands a full investigation for reasons related to the treatment of journalists under the international law, the details surrounding his death are becoming increasingly important as a matter of geopolitical competition between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Even before the murder of Khashoggi, the tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia had reached a high point when, in early March, the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman (also known as MBS), put Turkey in a group with Iran and extremist Islamist groups and called them “the contemporary triangle of evil.” This rhetoric reportedly came in response to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempts to establish himself as a champion of the election- and democracy-minded Islamists who hoped to ride them to power following the Arab Spring.

MBS accused Turkey and President Erdogan of trying to reinstate the Islamic Caliphate and of being the patron of the Muslim Brotherhood. The monarchies led by Saudi Arabia saw the electoral success of the political parties associated with the Brotherhood’s ideology as an existential threat because they seemingly provided a model of governance that challenged the authoritarian Islamist worldview people had come accustomed to see in Middle Eastern monarchies. Erdogan, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, and Khashoggi, an opponent of the Saudi regime, became friends, and Khashoggi gave support to Erdogan before the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey.

Positioning himself as the new leader of “moderate Islam” in the Middle East, MBS successfully created a coalition of Middle Eastern states, including Egypt and the UAE, that became increasingly hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey. In doing so, he also advanced his agenda of bringing Riyadh into tighter cooperation with the Trump administration.

It is within this political context that Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul requires a more nuanced examination.

Up until late last week, Crown Prince Mohammed and other Saudi officials insisted that Khashoggi had left the consulate freely and that they knew nothing of his whereabouts. More recently, thanks to the increasing pressure by the international community, the Royal Court stated that Khashoggi was accidentally strangled in a fist fight with Saudi intelligence agents. They insisted that the crown prince had no knowledge of what happened.

Turkish officials dispute the Royal Court’s explanation and argue that Khashoggi was assassinated and his body dismembered and removed from Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate by Saudi intelligence officials. They add that Khashoggi’s murder had taken place on an order that came directly from MBS. In fact, the Turkish government has been “steadily dripping out” the details of what happened at the consulate in an attempt to keep the anger over the story boiling and making it difficult for the Saudis to control the damage the Khashoggi murder created for MBS and for the U.S.-Saudi relations.

Although he kept silent for over two weeks, on Sunday night, President Erdogan spoke about Khashoggi’s murder in a televised speech and promised that within 48 hours he would “remove the lid completely” from a Saudi cover-up. It is significant that Erdogan still chose to give a 48-hour warning to the Saudi officials.

As he promised, Erdogan gave a speech in the Turkish parliament on Tuesday afternoon. In his speech, Erdogan strongly rejected Saudi Arabia’s claim that Khashoggi’s death was accidental. Instead, he stated, Khashoggi’s death was a result of a “ferocious” premeditated murder. Contrary to expectations, however, Erdogan did not offer much in the way the much-anticipated details about the circumstances of Khashoggi’s murder, including excerpts from a much-discussed audio or visual recording of the the killing.

While Erdogan’s omission of these details is important, it is equally important to note that CIA Director Gina Haspel was in Turkey this week. According to media reports, Haspel, who previously spent time in Turkey, was in discussions with the Turkish officials regarding the Khashoggi murder. Clearly, from both the U.S. and Turkish perspectives, there is more at stake than what meets the eye.

At this point, it is not clear what Erdogan might gain from not fully disclosing the details about Khashoggi’s brutal murder in his Tuesday speech. While Haspel was still in Turkey, Erdogan may have decided to wait a bit longer to “reveal the whole truth” about Khashoggi’s murder “in [its] full nakedness” and put pressure on the United States to reconsider U.S.-Saudi relations. Alternatively, he may have chosen to keep the information for now and decided to use it to force Saudi Arabia to make important concessions. In fact, Erdogan might be in for a major political victory if his actions since Sunday result in either forcing MBS out of his position or lifting of the Saudi economic embargo on Qatar, Turkey’s major ally in the region.

The most recent reports suggesting that the Saudi officials reversed their initial position and that they now claim that the information shared by the Turkish government indicates a premeditated nature of the killing of Khashoggi might be just the beginning of some important changes to come.

Binnur Ozkececi-Taner is department chair and a professor of political science in Hamline University’s College of Liberal Arts. She holds a BA in International Relations from the Middle East Technical University (Ankara, Turkey), an MA in Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute, and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Syracuse University.

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