Jamal Khashoggi’s murder ends the Saudi game of reforms in the Arab World

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is once again at the centre of international attention. This time it is not because of a failed coup, presidential elections or a financial crisis, but the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. A passionate advocate of free speech and democracy, Khashoggi was living in exile and a vocal critic of the Saudi regime. When 82-year-old King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz appointed his favourite son, Mohammed Bin Salman as crown prince 17 months ago, Khashoggi supported the young prince and Saudi Vision for 2030. Nevertheless, in an op-ed published in The Washington Post in November 2017, Khashoggi questioned Prince Mohammed's new image as a modern and enlightened leader, arguing that the crown prince was “acting like Putin and imposing very selective justice”. Khashoggi's own tragic end has become a litmus test of precisely such selective justice. 

After three weeks of silence, the crown prince spoke publicly Khashoggi's murder for the first time on Oct. 24, calling it “a heinous crime that cannot be justified”. After so many contradictory narratives of Khashoggi's disappearance, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said on the next day that Khashoggi’s murder was a “premeditated” act carried out by rogue elements. The Saudi chief prosecutor arrived in Istanbul on Oct. 29 to conduct investigations in collaboration with Turkish authorities. By that time, the mystery of Khashoggi's murder had already turned into an international scandal marked by a series of ironies.  

First, the political leader at the forefront of demands for justice for the murder is not the head of a Western state but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Ironically, Turkey has more opposition journalists in jail and in exile abroad than living at home since the failed coup attempt of July 2016 and the purge that followed. While in exile one of Khashoggi’s projects was to initiate an advocacy group called Democracy in the Arab World Now. His belief in the urgent need for reform in the Middle East must have led Khashoggi to support Turkey’s president when many of his counterparts criticised Erdogan’s policies. One of the reasons that might have motivated Erdoğan to reveal Khashoggi’s murder to the world could be this personal connection.

The second irony is that whoever gave the order to murder Khashoggi badly miscalculated Erdogan’s reaction. Prince Mohammed public statement highlighted that “co-operation between the Turkish and Saudi government was unique”. Given the recent Turkish financial crisis, Ankara is in more desperate need of foreign capital now than at any time since Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. Saudi authorities might have reasonably assumed that the flow of cash from Riyadh would be sufficient leverage to convince Turkish authorities to cover up this barbaric murder. Erdoğan has called for a transparent investigation and the disclosure of the location of Khashoggi's body, but Ankara has still not provided substantive evidence that would expose all the facts of the crime. Turkish authorities have indicated that they will release more information “incriminating the Saudi state” if King Salman does not act immediately.

Thirdly, Erdogan’s outrage has sent shockwaves across the Atlantic, exposing the hypocrisies of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. It not only gave American opponents of President Donald Trump additional grounds for criticising his support for the Saudis, but also placed Ankara in a stronger position relative to Riyadh given the current deteriorated U.S.-Turkish affairs. Even before the Trump administration, the United States has long had a special relationship with Saudi Arabia, a historical rival to Turkey for leadership of the Sunni Middle East. The international community questioned why the arms trade and business continued as usual between Riyadh and Washington despite the fact that 15 out of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 were Saudi citizens. Now the key question is whether or not U.S. business circles are willing to put strong pressure on Trump to change American policies towards the House of Saud. 

The international community has more questions than answers, but one thing is crystal clear: Prince Mohammed’s image, as the new face of reform in the Arab world, is blood stained by Khashoggi’s murder. The House of Saud is already suffering the consequences of Prince Mohammed’s reckless decisions over the war in Yemen, a diplomatic crisis with Qatar, and arrests of opponents of the Saudi royal family. While Western leaders prematurely promoted the crown prince as the next reformer of the Arab world, he was jailing campaigners for human and women's rights. Prince Mohammed, regarded as a hero for lifting the ban on Saudi women driving, is also responsible for arresting the very activists who led the ‘women2drive’ campaign.

All eyes are now on King Salman to see how he will decide the future of the crown prince and the kingdom. While investigations in Ankara and Riyadh continue, fierce condemnations have come from European leaders. The European Parliament has called for an EU-wide arms embargo against Saudi Arabia, putting pressure on the leaders of EU member states to suspend weapons sale to the kingdom. For Turkey’s Erdoğan, demands for justice for Khashoggi’s murder are likely to gain him greater respect in the Muslim world. But using this scandal to expose the deceptive nature of the kingdom’s much-publicised reforms is a smart move, which also challenges Prince Mohammed’s image as a reformer prince. But Khashoggi’s tragic end is unlikely to bring drastic changes in trade relations between the West and Saudi Arabia. Sadly, ethical foreign policy hardly ever wins over material interests in international politics.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.