What does Erdogan want from the Jamal Khashoggi Murder?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not known for soft rhetoric.
He confronted former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and accused him to his face of murdering children on the beaches of Gaza. He accused the German government of “Nazi actions” when it wouldn’t allow him to campaign for his presidential referendum. He accused the United States of turning a Kurdish militia in Syria into a “terrorist army.”
And yet, his response to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi has been measured and calculated so far. What does Erdogan want?
He has three clear objectives: divide Saudi Arabia from what he sees as an anti-Turkey, anti-Qatar, anti-Muslim Brotherhood coalition, divide Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) from King Salman and divide Saudi Arabia from the United States.
If you control the release of information, you can control the narrative – and Turkey controls all the information. Saudi Arabia cannot contrive a comprehensive and believable story that might absolve the Saudi leadership, because it knows that the next day Turkey could leak new information that expose its lies. As a result, the cloud of guilt over Saudi Arabia looms larger and larger.
Erdogan sees Muhammad bin Zayed in the United Arab Emirates, Abdel Fattah Sisi in Egypt, and MbS as key opponents. They embody the anti-Turkey, anti-Qatar, and anti-Muslim Brotherhood coalition.
Saudi tensions with Turkey and Qatar, over their support for the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood, escalated considerably after the rise of MbS. Much can be attributed to him personally. The Saudi Crown Prince even referred to Turkey as part of a “triangle of evil” that also includes Iran and Qatar. Saudi Arabia is clearly the ideological weak link in this group because Saudi Arabia takes a big risk in confronting Islamism. As Jamal Khashoggi wrote before his murder: “Saudi Arabia is the mother and father of political Islam and he [MbS] cannot run away from this.” This is potentially a strong coalition, as long as it can stay together. However, without Saudi Arabia it cannot shape the region— it may even fall apart.
Erdogan also aims to create rifts within the Saudi royal family—namely to split King Salman from his son the Crown Prince. Muhammad bin Salman has already created many enemies among the elites in Saudi society and within the royal family. King Salman was pivotal in his son, MbS, jumping in front of the much more accomplished and senior Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Nayef— the preferred candidate of both the United States and Turkey.
In his speech that set out to reveal the “naked truth” of the Jamal Khashoggi killing, Erdogan spoke of King Salman in a highly respectful tone and called him the “Custodian of the Two Holy Places.” In the same speech, he didn’t even mention the name Mohammad bin Salman. King Salman is the protector of MbS –if he pulls his support, MbS is in trouble.
Finally, Erdogan wants to create space between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The Trump administration invested heavily in its relationship with Saudi Arabia as relations with Turkey soured. Erdogan wants the US to adopt a Middle East strategy that is more reliant on Turkey and less focused on Saudi Arabia.
When Donald Trump was elected president, MbS called him “the right leader at the right time.” He was one of few world leaders to praise the new American president in such a way. MbS understood that the critical foreign relationship for his survival as Crown Prince is the relationship with the United States— Erdogan understands this too.
Erdogan does have an overarching goal: to paint a target on the head of MbS. He wants the US, the Royal Family, and even King Salman to view MbS as a liability that costs more than he is worth.
Will Erdogan get what he wants?
Already, King Salman’s brother and MbS rival, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, has returned from self-imposed exile in London. Senator Lindsey Graham has called for MbS to go. MbS has praised the strength of the Qatari economy, signaling a potential thaw in relations.
While it is by no means certain, it is no longer impossible to imagine a future of Saudi Arabia without Mohammad bin Salman. The days of highly publicized meetings with Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg and glowing endorsements from Thomas Friedman are long gone.
If MbS doesn’t go, Saudi Arabia will suffer economically and politically, at least in the short term. MbS is clearly wounded. He may survive, but his wounds won’t heal any time soon, because the Khashoggi murder won’t go away. Erdogan has all the information he needs to keep this gruesome story alive.