Erdogan in risky balancing act over Khashoggi case

“It’s a risky strategy because the Khashoggi murder won’t remain in headlines forever.” - Professor at Duke University Timur Kuran
Sunday 28/10/2018
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting in Ankara. (AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting in Ankara. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was perceived as embarking on a high-risk political balancing act in relations with Saudi Arabia hoping to score political — and some say economic — points without burning all bridges with Riyadh.

In a widely anticipated speech October 23, Erdogan called Khashoggi’s death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a “savage murder” perpetrated by a hit squad that flew in from Saudi Arabia with the express purpose to kill the journalist. While the Turkish leader himself did not point the finger at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, some of Erdogan’s close aides did.

Turkish officials suspect Saudi security agents killed Khashoggi, 59, inside the consulate. Saudi Arabia first said it was unknown what happened to Khashoggi but the Saudi public prosecutor has since said the killing had been premeditated.

The Erdogan government consistently leaked information about Khashoggi’s disappearance to national and international media to increase pressure on Riyadh.

Addressing members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara on October 26, Erdogan said Turkey had “other information” about the killing but did not want to be “too hasty” about sharing it.

That is the kind of remark that makes observers think Turkey is “less interested in revealing what really happened to the Saudi journalist than in leveraging the murder for political gain,” as the Washington Post editorial board put it.

One immediate aim of Turkey’s approach is to pressure Saudi Arabia into admitting that the Khashoggi killing was a politically motivated act of violence as part of a competition with Riyadh over leadership of the Muslim world. Until now, Ankara’s image has been marked by its support to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is seen as a terrorist organisation by Saudi Arabia as well as its allies Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

The Erdogan government would also like to see a different stance by Saudi Arabia in Syria. Riyadh recently transferred $100 million for reconstruction efforts in northern Syria to the United States. The region is a stronghold of a Kurdish militia allied with the United States but seen as a terrorist group by Turkey.

“Many Turks are asking who authorised the $100 million in Saudi aid to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, while knowing that the YPG is an offshoot of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] terrorist organisation, which is waging a secessionist war in south-eastern Turkey,” Erdogan adviser Ilnur Cevik wrote in the pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah.

Turkey’s opposition said Erdogan may also be trying to get the Saudis to help Turkey’s struggling economy. Despite the pullout of many high-profile names, who were expected to attend prior to the Khashoggi crisis, billions of dollars of deals were signed during Riyadh’s Future Investment Initiative driving the point that Saudi Arabia remains a big draw in the world of business and finance.

Erdogan is balancing his anti-Saudi rhetoric with expressions of support for Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. He has talked with both the king and Crown Prince Mohammed since Khashoggi’s death and allowed Saudi law enforcement agents and the prosecutor general to travel to Turkey.

One reason Turkey does not go all out in its anti-Saudi course could be linked to impending US sanctions against the Iranian oil sector. Because Iran has been Turkey’s main supplier of oil, Ankara is under pressure by Washington to cut imports and buy its oil elsewhere. Saudi Arabia, among the top five sources of crude for Turkey, could be asked to fill the gap.

Excessive criticism hurled at Saudi Arabia also carries a risk for Turkey of being accused of hypocrisy. “The West would be naive to believe Turkish officials’ new-found passion for free speech,” Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think-tank in Washington, wrote in an analysis for the online magazine the Globalist. “Turkey is still the number one jailer of journalists in the world.”

Erdogan’s double-edged tactics could lead to long-term tensions with Riyadh under a future king Mohammed bin Salman.

“Erdogan is continuing to hold back hard evidence, probably because he remains hopeful of gaining concessions from Saudi Arabia,” Timur Kuran, a professor at Duke University, wrote on Twitter. “It’s a risky strategy because the Khashoggi murder won’t remain in headlines forever” and Crown Prince Mohammed could have “a huge score to settle with Erdogan.”