Khashoggi Affair: An Opportunity at Erdogan’s Door?
In 2010, Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself after the confiscation of his push cart by local officials. Within a month after this incident, the then Tunisian President Ben Ali had to resign and this seemingly individual attempt set in motion the famous ‘Arab Spring’ which toppled multiple regimes in the Middle East. New regimes in the region post-Arab Spring like that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt cropped up only to be sacrificed at the altar of regional conflicts and rivalries. More than half a decade after the Arab Spring, the region finds itself in a deep abyss of political uncertainty, bloodshed and poverty.
In October, Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist working for The Washington Post, was brutally murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He visited the Saudi consulate to collect some documents in relation to his forthcoming marriage. While the incident has not led to any popular protest on the streets, it surely has sent ripples in countless political circles across the globe. Khashoggi was reportedly murdered and later dismembered at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman popularly known as MbS. After numerous flip-flops, Saudi Arabia has confessed to Khashoggi’s murder.
Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen living in self-imposed exile for a year. He was critical of the policies and designs of MbS. His stinging criticism of the Yemen crisis being perpetuated by MbS is a case in point. He was also, in the eyes of the Saudis, tarnishing MbS’s image of an economic and social reformer. As luck would have it, Khashoggi’s words against MbS proved too costly and he had to face the wrath of the Crown Prince.
After details came out regarding a Saudi 15 member hit team that landed in Istanbul to kill Khashoggi, the American media demanded that political and commercial powers distance themselves from Saudi Arabia. There were several voices demanding a special inquiry into the incident to be conducted by the U.S. government. Several corporate heavyweights stayed away from the ‘Davos in the Desert ’ summit organized by Saudi Arabia. France and the UK pulled their ministerial representation out of the summit.
True to his own style, President Donald Trump remained non-committal about Khashoggi’s murder. However, after much procrastination, he spoke but didn’t cast blame on MbS nor did he completely rule it out. To the surprise of American agencies involved in the case, President Trump went public about his ‘satisfaction’ with Saudi Arabia’s account which claimed that Khashoggi was killed by rogue agents of Saudi Arabia. This one statement ensured that United States was in no mood to disturb its valued relationship with Saudi Arabia. As a retired Indian Diplomat put it “It was too naïve to ask for tough action from the United States. If relationship survived 9/11, why would it not live through this?” Action against Saudi Arabia at this point doesn’t fit into Trump’s scheme of things. Trump, influenced by his son-in-law, is on the mission of cornering Iran through measures like scrapping the Iran nuclear deal and pressuring other countries to stop trading with Iran with the final pursuit of complete breakup of all form of ties with Iran.
Ever since reports of Khashoggi’s murder came into public domain, Turkish media has continuously leaked one piece of information after another. Turkish political leadership made it an important issue to be pursued relentlessly. Demands range from investigation within the Saudi consulate to the prosecution of perpetrators within Turkey under Turkish laws.
It’s no secret that Turkey itself has been through turbulent times following the failed coup against Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Thousands of civil servants were purged on the charge of being sympathetic to cleric Fethullah Gülen. Khashoggi’s murder provides an opportunity for Erdogan to sidetrack criticism against his own authoritative regime and direct it towards Saudi Arabia.
A constitutional amendment carried out by Erdogan has ensured his presence until 2028 as the supreme leader of Turkey. He has poised himself as the strongest leader since Kemal Ataturk, while leading the country towards orthodox Islam. Against a backdrop of power consolidation at home and constant instability in the region, the Khashoggi episode provides elbow room for Erdogan to get even with Saudi Arabia.
In 2013, Saudi Arabia was instrumental in toppling President Morsi’s government in Egypt. Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood was close to Erdogan’s AKP. The Saudis were unnerved by possible Turkish intervention in the region through the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, support for regime change in Egypt was soon overwhelmed by the Saudi stratagem to limit Turkey’s role in Middle East politics.
Another significant development regarding the formation of a NATO like Arab coalition has driven a wedge between MbS and Erdogan. Further frustrating the chance of any conciliation is Turkey’s position on the Qatar blockade. Turkey has openly supported Iran and cooperated with it on supplying essential material to Doha. Turkish military presence in Doha has also rattled the Saudi establishment.
Within the American establishment Khashoggi’s murder is seen as a flea bite in a time-tested relationship with Saudi Arabia. Turkey, however, perceives it as a golden opportunity to upset the relationship between the two countries. For Erdogan, this incident brings respite from constant criticism against his ruthless policies from western countries and at the same time it upends the image of MbS being a reformer.
Erdogan’s aspiration of having considerable heft in Middle East affairs can only be real if he tackles Kurdish militias in and around his territory. American support for Turkey at this moment can enable him to crush Kurdish dissent. Thus, he is not leaving any stone unturned to win over the trust of western countries and simultaneously contrasting MbS as an untrustworthy monarch.
As details about Khashoggi’s murder unravel and pressure mounts on MbS to take action against the perpetrators, there are speculations about a possible revolt against the Crown Prince inside the palace. Khashoggi’s daughter says that he has left a brave legacy for others to follow. However, his death seems to have become much more than his legacy alone. Whether it will turn out to be a ‘Black Swan Event’ like Bouazizi’s self-immolation, is too early to say. Nevertheless, it’s the biggest challenge the Saudi Kingdom grapples with right now.