Erdogan tries to force changes to the Saudi government

Despite a growing wave of backlash against Saudi Arabia for the suspected killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Turkey remains tactful in its criticism.

Khashoggi evidently never left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul after going there to obtain a document on October 2. Turkish officials have anonymously claimed that Khashoggi, who wrote critical articles about the Saudi royal family for the Washington Post, was killed and dismembered by a 15-member Saudi team.

On Friday, the Kingdom made the dubious claim that the journalist had died after a fistfight at the consulate, despite not being able to produce a body and having previously insisted that he’d left.

On Saturday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on Riyadh to “shed light on this issue,” adding that “it’s not a case that can just be dismissed.”

Erdoğan had previously agreed to a joint investigation with the Saudis themselves, and his characteristic invective is nowhere to be seen.

Most of the team reportedly worked for Saudi security services, and unnamed American officials have told US media outlets that an audio recording given to them by Turkish officials supports the claim that Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured and killed. 

President Erdoğan told Riyadh to prove Khashoggi had left the consulate and later said the Saudis had painted over parts of the consulate before a Turkish team came to investigate. On Friday authorities in Turkey began questioning as many as 15 Turkish employees of the Saudi consulate.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of leaks continues to come from anonymous Turkish officials, likely directed from Ankara.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have cordial but often tense relations.

“Turkey tried to befriend Saudi Arabia under the [ruling Justice and Development Party], but the Arab Spring, Turkey’s support for the [Muslim] Brotherhood and its alliance with [Saudi Arabia’s enemy] Qatar cooled the relations,” said Soli Özel, an international relations professor at Istanbul's Kadir Has University.

“Yet they can’t afford to break relations either, so long as all sides are concerned about Iranian influence.”

Özel says Ankara will try to make the most out of Riyadh’s predicament.

“Turkey doesn’t want to rush things and wishes to draw maximum benefit from a situation that leaves its unloved brother Saudi Arabia in deep trouble,” he said. “By letting the consul general leave, the government gave a message that it doesn’t want to escalate, but will have to come up with its findings fully displayed at some point.”

Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the the Atlantic Council, thinks there’s a strategy behind Turkish officials’ release of leaks of the alleged gruesome details.

“I think the Turks are trying to force changes to the Saudi government and to force the US to put pressure on Saudi for pursuing, in Ankara’s mind, destabilizing policies throughout the Middle East.”

Meanwhile, global outrage against Riyadh grows.

On Thursday, United States treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and United Kingdom trade minister Liam Fox each announced they won’t be attending a major investment conference in Riyadh next week, joining the Dutch and French finance ministers as well as IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde.

“I think the damage to the Saudi brand has been pretty catastrophic,” said Perry Cammack, a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Heavyweight politicians from both major parties in the US have also united in their outrage against de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS.

Influential Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who’s close with Trump and has been an outspoken supporter of the Kingdom, threatened to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia” on Tuesday. Republican Marco Rubio has suggested reducing arms sales.

On Tuesday, Democrat Jim McGovern introduced a bipartisan-sponsored bill that would ban all arms sales and military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and suspend the security relationship between Washington and Riyadh.

“I think a bill like [the one] congressman McGovern put forward has a real chance of moving forward, partly because there was already a reservoir of support for restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia,” said Andrew Miller, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and a scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program who’s worked on Middle East issues for the National Security Council.

Last year, the American Senate nearly passed a bipartisan bill to stop a USD 500 million weapons sale to Saudi Arabia amid outrage over massive human rights abuses in Yemen.

Last week, eleven senators from each party triggered the Global Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the government to sanction major human rights abusers abroad. President Trump is now required to determine whether or not the Saudis are responsible for such abuse.

“There’s nearly unanimous support for a very robust response to what is increasingly clearly the murder of a US resident and journalist for one of the US’s flagship newspapers,” Miller told Ahval.

“Congress has been incredibly strong on the level of animus towards Saudi Arabia. It’s really unprecedented.”

However, President Trump and secretary of state Mike Pompeo haven’t joined their colleagues in condemning the lack of a coherent explanation from the Kingdom over Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Trump went so far as to criticize the backlash against MbS, speculating on Monday after a phone call with King Salman that an assassination could have been the result of “rogue killers,” and complaining on Tuesday that the crown prince has been declared “guilty until proven innocent.”

After visiting MbS and King Salman in Riyadh on Monday, Pompeo praised the Saudis’ investigation of the Khashoggi incident, saying in a written statement to the media that “there is serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability.”

Miller doesn’t think claims of a “rogue killer” will convince Congress.

“What I’ve seen so far is a very strong and negative reaction to that theory,” he said.

Several senators have expressed doubts about the claim, including Graham.

Evidence seems to link the Saudi team that allegedly killed Khashoggi with bin Salman.

The two jets that carried the team were chartered by a company close to the Saudi royal family, and the New York Times has confirmed that some of the team have links to MbS’s personal security detail.

US-Saudi relations are likely to take a hit with this incident, but few are predicting an end to the alliance.

“I think both sides will make sure this doesn’t turn into something adversarial, but at the same time, is Trump still going to [continue to] see the Saudis as the gateway for their Middle East policy? That’s not so clear,” said Carnegie’s Cammack.

The Trump administration has long been determined to cultivate close relations with the Kingdom as part of its regional strategy to isolate Iran, and human rights issues have rarely been a major obstacle.

“American presidents have always placed security and commercial interests above values in the relationship. The difference is that Trump is so open about it,” said Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Cook says the US can’t afford to lose its alliance with Riyadh, but should also pressure the Saudis to hold to account whoever is responsible for the likely killing of Khashoggi.

“The US should lead an international investigation. Tell the Saudis that their behavior is unacceptable, inform the King that he has to rein in his son or the relationship will change,” he said.

Carnegie’s Cammack said MbS’s likely involvement in the killing of Khashoggi is just the latest in a series of rash decisions, such as holding Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri against his will for two weeks last year and blowing up diplomatic relations with Canada last summer over a mildly critical tweet.

“I think [because] he’s been getting away with these brazen actions and not really having to pay the consequences, maybe something like this was inevitable.”

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