October 12, 2018
Jamal Khashoggi’s abduction/murder mystery must have been a nightmare for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) leadership. During the last ten years few foreign leaders have been spared from their personal attacks in times of discord. Yet, despite ups and downs, disagreements, disappointments in the effort to topple President Assad, Turkey’s leaders have not uttered a word reflecting their frustration with Riyadh’s policies. This was not because of Saudi Arabia’s money. This was because they are the “custodians of the two holy mosques”, Islam’s holiest shrines. As such, they were beyond reproach, sacrosanct.
If one were to look at the relationship from Riyadh, it was no secret that the royal family was profoundly upset with Ankara’s Arab spring support to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nonetheless, both sides refrained from public statements on their differences.
Ankara’s siding with Qatar in the Gulf dispute was a turning point. However, JDP leaders who expressed support for Qatar underlining a very special relationship with Doha again refrained from criticizing Saudi leaders and probably tried to mediate. Riyadh it seems wasn’t prepared to listen. Relations were visibly strained.
In the last episode concerning Jamal Khashoggi, the JDP leadership while allowing leaks to the media about the details of the investigation and increasing international pressure on Riyadh, once again avoided targeting Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, de facto king, directly. And one should admit, they were successful in putting the ball in President Trump’s court, thus turning the whole thing from a bilateral Turkish-Saudi controversy into a war of nerves between the three capitals.
Candidate Trump had called Saudi Arabia “the world’s biggest funders of terrorism.” President Trump made his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia. On November 7, in the wake of the purges in the Saudi capital, he tweeted, “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing….” (*)
The purges and the news of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announcing his decision to resign not in Beirut but on an “extended stay” in the Kingdom should have been seen as warning signals regarding Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s understanding of power but they weren’t.
Despite incriminating leaks following one another last week, President Trump told journalists emphatically last Thursday, “I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States because you know what they’re going to do, they’re going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China… If it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are certainly other ways of handling the situation.”
Since the arrow had already left the bow Turkish authorities responded by saying that they have explicit audio recordings as well as video footage showing that Saudi agents killed the dissident Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. They also agreed to a Saudi proposal to form a “joint committee” to look into the incident. This sounds like a joke but Turkey has nothing to lose since the center of gravity has now shifted to Washington and it is not only Turkey but the world waiting for answers.
In view of the strong reaction in the U.S. to what has been unfolding in the last ten days, what President Trump exactly meant by “other ways of handling the situation” is likely to become one of Washington’s top agenda items in the coming days. Would the U.S. tolerate the murder of a journalist in consulate in a foreign country? How would it strike a balance between principle and business? What if Tehran were to invest $110 billion in arms imports from the U.S.?
The Trump administration calls Iran “world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism”. And now, Iran’s leadership must be thrilled with the Khashoggi murder mystery. So far, they have remained silent waiting everything to be become crystal clear. When that happens, they are going to raise their voice.
This was an interesting day in Turkey with senior CNN International correspondents reporting from both the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the courthouse where the Brunson case hearings continued in Izmir. Pastor Brunson was found guilty but the court considering the time he spent in prison and under house arrest decided to set him free. Whether this would allow Ankara and Washington to address their other more important differences in a constructive spirit remains to be seen.
(*) State of Confusion in Riyadh, November 13, 2017.