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Claire Sadar
Oct 20 2018

Saudi admission of killing Khashoggi likely to end Turkish threats of releasing tapes

The disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was nearing international crisis levels when the Saudi government finally owned up to his death on October 19, more than two weeks after he walked into Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Both the United States and Saudi were keen to find a way to sweep the matter out of the headlines and avoid directly dealing with Khashoggi’s fate. Saudi for obvious reasons did not want the full story of what happened to Khashoggi to see the light of day. President Trump for his part was more than happy to take Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, who is the defacto king due to his father’s failing health, at his word when he denied knowledge of Khashoggi’s fate.

But Turkey’s government was not going to let the matter rest. Shortly after Khashoggi’s disappearance Turkish government and intelligence officials began a steady stream of leaks about the circumstances surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance to the government-aligned Turkish press. The leaks reached their peak with the claim that Turkish officials possessed an audio recording of what took place inside the consulate that day; a recorded that, they claim, proves decisively that Khashoggi was murdered minutes after he entered the building.

On the one hand, Turkey’s dogged insistence that the place and manner of Khashoggi’s death come to light is completely understandable. Assassinating someone inside a diplomatic post is a gross violation of Turkey’s sovereignty. Refraining from investigating the crime would make Turkey look extremely weak and open the door to other states perpetrating similar crimes on its soil.

On the other hand, the continuous, detailed leaks about the potential perpetrators and implied threat to release the recording of the killing were extremely puzzling. The US made it clear that it would support Turkey’s efforts to make Saudi fess up to what happened, yet Turkey did not back down, and if anything seemed to turn up the volume on its leaks.

Turkey had engage Saudi in a game of diplomatic chicken, but what was in it for Turkey? The answer to this question is far from clear. Analysts, academics and journalists focused on Turkey have put forth a number of theories, which generally fall into three categories: religious and political leadership, economic and political concessions, or Turkey’s need to save political and diplomatic face.

Ryan Gingeras, Associate Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, also believes that regional political and religious stature is likely behind Turkey’s confrontation of the Saudis. “It is clear that Erdogan is content to have Riyadh squirm while Ankara steps forward as the main arbiter in determining whether the Saudis are guilty of what purports to be a gruesome murder,”  Gingers told Ahval. “Ankara may extract some price for this, be it in terms of investment into the Turkish economy or something else. But the undeniable value of this crisis is that Turkey looks more like the leader of the Islamic world and Saudi Arabia does not.”

Others see more tangible gains are behind Turkey’s stand. Journalist Melik Kaylan believes that religious and political rivalry between Turkey and Saudi is at play. However, Turkey is also taking advantage of the opportunity to take a jab at the US, by targeting Trump’s favorite $100 billion dollar arms deal with the Saudis “The threat is aimed not merely at the US economy, at Donald Trump's securest claim on broad-based support, but also on the global sway of the dollar as the reserve currency underpinned by petro-dollars,” writes Kaylan in Forbes.

A number of analysts tweeted out speculations about what tangible gains Turkey could be after.

However, it is also possible that Turkey was not after major political, religious or economic goals, but for reasons of national pride and sovereignty needed Saudi to admit to Khashoggi’s death and hold someone responsible.

“For Turkey, this is a question of national sovereignty and national pride,” Howard Eissenstat, Professor at St. Lawrence University and Senior Nonresident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Ahval.  “The decision to carry out such an attack on Turkish soil is, in itself, a demonstration of how little Mohammad Bin Salman considered Turkey. Erdogan both has an interest and, no doubt, a powerful desire to demonstrate how badly Mohammad Bin Salman miscalculated.”

But according to Selim Sazak, analyst and doctoral candidate at Brown University, Turkey may be after something more basic. “Turkey is waiting for the admission of guilt, which was going to be a watered-down admission of guilt anyway,” Sazak told Ahval the day before Saudi finally admitted to Khashoggi’s death. “The Turks have the least interest in pursuing this case. They have given Saudi a way out- admit that this was a botched operation- and are frustrated that they are not taking it. They cannot erase Khashoggi’s life and death. You cannot pretend nothing happened, which seems to be Saudi’s expectation. Someone needs to be held responsible.”

Thus, following Sazak’s reasoning, Saudi’s admission that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, the arrest of 18 people in connection with his death, and promises to reform Saudi intelligence will likely be the end Turkey’s threats to release the tapes of the murder. Politics as usual will go on in Saudi and Turkey.  However, if the Saudis spontaneously decided to give Erdogan a ridiculously expensive gift, or Erdogan renews his quest to be a pan-national political and religious figure, we can say with relative certainty that Turkey managed to extract more than an admission of guilt from the Saudis.

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