Since 2 October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to bolster his domestic and international standing by putting pressure on the United States and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman, the kingdom’s effective ruler, has been on the defensive.
It is important to situate the Turkish and Saudi responses to Khashoggi’s murder in a domestic and regional context to understand how they might affect future events, especially U.S. policy in the Middle East.
President Donald Trump’s approach to Iran has benefited Bin Salman. The crown prince used US pressure on Tehran to consolidate power at home and expand the kingdom’s strategic position in the region. Riyadh secured Trump’s initial backing for the blockade of Qatar (home to the largest US base in the region) and the war against the Houthis in Yemen.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s stance towards the United States and its allies has shifted considerably over the past two years. The Obama administration’s unwillingness to use military force against the Assad regime convinced Erdogan that Washington was an unreliable partner. The forceful Russian intervention in Syria in August 2015 led Turkey to seek a stronger partnership with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But after Turkey’s failed coup attempt in July 2016, unconditional Russian and Iranian support for the Turkish government swayed Erdogan to seek closer cooperation with Russia and Iran—the Assad regime’s main backers. Western allies’ perceived lack of concern for Ankara’s domestic and regional troubles worsened U.S.-Turkish ties.
In this context, Khashoggi’s murder gave Turkey a serious public-relations advantage over Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The Turkish government has used strategic leaks to the media (especially pro-government outlets at home) to frame the issue in line with its interests. Riyadh first denied that it had anything to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance, and then admitted that “rogue elements” of Saudi security services had killed the journalist. The Erdogan government’s effective PR game even received the reluctant endorsement of Turkey’s beleaguered opposition.
Ankara’s prudent moves also forced the Trump administration to shift from ignoring Khashoggi’s demise to becoming directly involved in the fallout. As the Turkish leaks stoked global outrage, Trump sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the region and CIA Director Gina Haspel to Ankara to examine the Turkish evidence against the Saudis.
In the wake of Khashoggi’s death, Erdogan’s objective is to force the kingdom to change its policies in Syria, Yemen, Qatar, and possibly Iran. While Erdogan consistently pays respect to King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in his PR efforts against Riyadh (including the Turkish president writing an op-ed piece in the Washington Post in early November), such courtesy is not extended to the Saudi crown prince. Erdogan may even hope to forge a coalition of domestic and international actors to oust Bin Salman.
But the Khashoggi case has also revealed the underlying weakness in Turkey’s international standing. It reminded global audiences that freedom of speech and the press are under threat in Turkey. Even as Erdogan’s government took up the cause of the murdered Saudi journalist, critics pointed out the deterioration of independent journalism, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law under his rule.
Coupled with the weak state of the Turkish economy, Ankara’s ability to change Riyadh’s regional policies is limited. Had this been the 2000s or early 2010s, when Turkey’s international prestige was at a zenith, the Turkish government might have won tangible concessions from Saudi Arabia. Thus, unless Erdogan finds a way to restart his country’s reforms and loosens restrictions on press freedom, Ankara may not be able to secure much support from the West against Riyadh.
For Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi’s murder has complicated its close economic and political ties with Europe and the United States. Until 2 October, Saudi Arabia’s Western allies had remained mostly silent on its excesses in Yemen and Qatar, the brief detainment of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and the shakedown of political opponents at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. Even the Saudi decision to downgrade diplomatic relations with Canada over an innocuous tweet passed by without protest from the United States and the Europeans.
The reluctance to criticize Bin Salman is in part a consequence of Western perceptions of the crown prince as a reformer who has relaxed some of the country’s draconian social policies. Since his father became king in 2015, the crown prince has used his kingdom’s critical role in global energy markets and petrodollars to diversify the Saudi economy—a plan commonly known as “Vision 2030.” As part of Bin Salman’s vision, Saudi Arabia has invested in Silicon Valley companies and extended contracts to U.S. defense firms, a point that Trump has emphasized repeatedly.
But the outrage over Khashoggi’s murder has shown that the Kingdom’s economic and political power has limits. Since 2 October, Turkish President Erdogan has ignored Bin Salman’s efforts to paint himself as a friend of Turkey and dialed up the pressure on the crown prince by calling for an international investigation into Khashoggi’s murder. (The alleged CIA finding that the assassination took place on the Saudi crown prince’s order is likely based in part on the Turkish government revealing audio recordings of the murder.)
Meanwhile, threats to hike oil prices have not strengthened the Saudi position. Several names have emerged as Bin Salman’s replacement since 2 October, and some analysts argue that the crown prince feels threatened. Yet while Bin Salman may be weakened, he is less vulnerable than it might appear. Since 2015, the Saudi crown prince has ousted several of his most powerful adversaries—including the former crown prince, Interior Minister Mohammed Bin Nayef, who was extremely popular in Western capitals for his effectiveness in the fight against Al-Qaeda.
Forcing the crown prince from power would require a major loss of support from King Salman and the broader royal family, which appears unlikely at the moment. Bin Salman’s hold on Saudi security services and armed forces appears strong.
For now, both Turkey and the United States must tread carefully with Saudi Arabia because neither of them can afford to weaken their ties with the region’s largest petropower. Riyadh has repeatedly signaled to Washington that it could seek new international partners—especially Russia. Riyadh-Moscow relations had been tense over Syria since 2012, but the state visit of King Salman to Russia in November 2017 led to critical agreements between the two sides over arms purchases and energy cooperation. It is possible to entertain a scenario where Bin Salman increasingly leverages the prospect of closer ties with Russia against any substantive shift in U.S. policy towards the Kingdom. It looks like justice for Jamal Khashoggi will have a high price that the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia cannot afford.
Barin Kayaoglu is an assistant professor of world history at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani and a Faculty Fellow at the Institute of Regional & International Studies. He is currently working on his first book on U.S. relations with Turkey and Iran from World War II to the present and pro- and anti-Americanism in the two countries. You can follow him at www.barinkayaoglu.com and on Facebook. Twitter: @barinkayaoglu.
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