Erdogan, Qatar and the drop-by-drop strategy
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is dealing with the Jamal Khashoggi case the same way Turkish soap opera directors deal with their viewers. Every day they offer them a fresh episode and a few new developments.
And, just like a show producer deals with advertisers, Erdogan deals with regional and international actors. The Khashoggi case is a golden goose that he has tried to exploit.
Erdogan regulates the pace of leaks and statements to the tune of political aims and possible gains. While observers and public opinion are expecting the full details of the Khashoggi’s death in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul story as possessed by Turkish intelligence, Erdogan chooses instead to raise more questions and create additional developments, alluding to the possibility of holding more “surprises and shockers” up his sleeve.
Through the Khashoggi case, Erdogan achieved at least three important strategic objectives: restoring the momentum to relations with US President Donald Trump’s administration and pushing for cooperation instead of sanctions; bringing Turkey to the forefront of regional affairs and the international limelight when its reputation was seriously damaged due to mismanagement of internal and external affairs; and scoring points in its competition with the Saudis over the Sunni leadership of the Islamic world.
These objectives will be put to use internally and externally, from improving Turkey’s bargaining position with the European Union by distancing itself a bit from accusations of restricting media and political freedoms to gaining some leeway on the Kurdish issue, whether in the south-east of Anatolia or in Syria to perpetuating Erdogan’s image of the supreme leader and legitimising the reduction of the Turkish state to his own person.
Part of the reason Turkey is trickling out details of the Khashoggi case drop by drop is that Ankara looks at the case as a gift from heaven. For the first time in nearly a decade, Erdogan is speaking about press freedom, the rights of journalists and the sanctity of journalistic work. For the first time in a decade, Erdogan bypassed, formally at least, the charge of having turned his country into a large prison for journalists, bloggers, thinkers, university professors, judges and lawyers.
On the back of Turkey’s drop-by-drop policy, Qatar is jumping on the wagon to settle old and new scores with Riyadh. European capitals are escalating their rhetoric with Riyadh to improve their negotiating positions in trade deals with Saudi Arabia.
Finally, Washington gets to play its favourite game of working every side against the middle, especially since the Americans were not so pleased with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s response to Trump’s offers of “money for security.”
The question is: When will the credits roll on this Turkish soap opera? There is no doubt that many regional and international actors are aspiring for a full settlement, starting with the Gulf crisis and the embargo on Qatar, passing through a different approach for dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist movements and the lifting of the Saudi veto on the Turkish presence in the Red Sea.
Riyadh must take a big leap and go beyond the trickling of leaks to pre-empt Erdogan’s political finger-wagging during his speech before the Turkish parliament. Perhaps the most important thing for Riyadh to do is to hold the perpetrators publicly accountable and expedite fair and just sentences, in addition to moving the media space towards more freedom and the acceptance of dissenting opinions and stopping the persecutions of those with differing opinions.
In other words, the Saudis must quickly and symbolically retake Jamal Khashoggi and save him from those transacting with his bloodied shirt and they are numerous.
This may be one of the few times I agree with the Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui concerning his position about the crisis. He called for a thorough investigation and for not purposely and maliciously targeting Saudi Arabia.
Jhinaoui is aware that Saudi Arabia’s enemies are many and ready to pounce at any chance they get. He knows that many covet the kingdom’s religious soft power.
However, Jhinaoui also knows that even if the solution to the Khashoggi crisis is purely Saudi, it must be convincing on the local, regional and international levels and it must be something that Riyadh can do quickly.