Analysis

'Murder' of Saudi Dissident: Why Turkey Is in No Hurry to Cut Off Ties With Riyadh

The affair of the alleged torture and murder of Saudi journalist Khashoggi has put the West, as well as the Turks and Saudis, in a bind

ARCHIVE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Ankara, April 12, 2016
Burhan Ozbilici,AP

>> Update: Saudis to admit killing journalist in botched interrogation and abduction operation

The shocking accounts – to the effect that agents of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sawed up the body of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, after he was tortured there – put Western powers, particularly the United States and Britain, in a major dilemma. Should they demand an international investigation into Khashoggi’s alleged arrest and possible murder? Should there be imposition of sanctions on senior Saudi officials, which Britain is threatening, when such a move might endanger major commercial deals involving the kingdom?

Or perhaps it should be assumed that the problem will sort itself out, as President Donald Trump initially suggested before saying later that Khoshoggi’s fate is “not looking too good … from what we’re hearing.” Trump threatened “severe punishment” if the Saudi authorities are indeed responsible for assassinating the journalist, who had been critical of the regime.

The dilemma isn’t only over the required response but what the target of punitive measures should be. Why, for example, should Saudi Arabia be targeted but not Russia or Bulgaria, or Egypt or Turkey, where journalists, male and female, have been killed or raped or arrested without trial, or have disappeared?

>>Saudis threaten global economic repercussions if punished for 'murdered' journalist

Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, site of the alleged arrest, torture and killing of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, October 13, 2018.
Petros Giannakouris/AP

A new dimension has suddenly surfaced in the realm of threats posed to regimes by journalists. The latter do not only supply critical information and reveal outrageous facts that could result in criminal actions against presidents and prime ministers, or could even topple entire regimes: Harassment of journalists – as well as their assassination, of course – could have far-reaching effects on international relations in general.

For example, Turkey now finds itself at the center of the storm surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance, after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, but apparently never walked out alive. Turkey is now in a bind between responding forcefully to what appears to have been inexcusable infringement on its sovereignty – and its desire to preserve what is left of its badly damaged ties with Riyadh.

One can only assume that if it had been any other country besides Saudi Arabia that had been involved in the disappearance of the journalist on Turkish soil, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have immediately severed diplomatic relations with the other country and probably even demanded an immediate emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the incident. But Turkey, which has links to the Russian-Iranian-Qatari axis of power, has still not given up on its dream to exert influence on the Middle East.

It’s difficult for Ankara to forgo the huge achievement that it snagged in 2015 when it became a member of the Saudi coalition in the war against the Islamic State, which then gave Turkey an admission ticket into the Arab club of Middle Eastern countries, many of which still view Erdogan's republic as hostile. In addition, too much Saudi money is invested in Turkey: Last year alone, the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait invested nearly $2 billion, equal to all of the other foreign investments in the Turkish markets. But these interests and investments, it should be noted, didn’t keep the UAE's ambassador in Washington from labeling Turkey as a threat.

With respect to the Khashoggi case, Ankara, which is committed to a cautious approach, has now suggested a compromise in the form of a joint Turkish and Saudi investigative panel that will examine the evidence and sequence of events involving the journalist. But the Saudis, as expected, are not cooperating.

On top of this, initial reports about Khashoggi's disappearance in the Arab press, particularly the Egyptian media, actually portrayed Turkey rather than the Saudis as the culprit. Dandrawi al-Harawi, editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Yawm al-Sabaa, has alleged that Turkey was directly involved in abducting Khashoggi, and added that the Turks falsified evidence to sully the Saudis’ reputation, as part of an effort by the Muslim Brotherhood to harm Arab regimes, “since it is well known that Khashoggi was part of the Muslim Brotherhood and was previously even a close associate of [Osama] Bin Laden and radical Muslim movements.”

The media outlets in question also highlighted what they called Khashoggi’s ties to the CIA and Britain’s MI6 intelligence service – meaning that if he wasn’t a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (considered an enemy of the government in Cairo), he worked on behalf of Western espionage agencies. It follows that the assassination of a traitor isn’t such a major tragedy.

When that is how the Khashoggi incident is being framed in the Arab media, the fact that the West is determined to get to the bottom of the case might be seen as supporting the claim that he was indeed a Western intelligence agent. But commentators spreading that idea “forget” to mention the close ties that the Egyptian and Saudi intelligence services themselves have with their Western counterparts.

It’s also not by chance that the Arab pundits refrain from mentioning Jamal Khashoggi’s family ties to the late Adnan Khashoggi, the billionaire arms dealer who mediated deals in the 1980s involving the United States, Israel and Iran in the framework of what was dubbed Irangate. Renewed attention to that scandal could greatly embarrass the Saudi leadership, making it preferable if the focus were to remain solely on the journalist, whose sharply honed writing exposed the weak spots of the regime in Riyadh.

For now, Saudi Arabia denies any connection to the presumed assassination of Khashoggi. It has even cited the wide-ranging wave of arrests by the regime of political rivals in the kingdom in an attempt to show that when it comes to enemies from within, it applies the rule of law. But it can’t ply such an argument abroad, in a world that is beginning to regret its initial enthusiasm over the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince.

Usually the accepted solution in the face of such a scandal would be to find a scapegoat on whom the Saudi ruler can pin the blame, and accuse the culprit of exceeding his authority and of harming the kingdom’s good name, thereby sweeping the whole issue of assassination off the international agenda. In this case, however, such a move would constitute an admission of guilt on the part of the entire Saudi leadership, since an assassination of this kind would require the approval of at least the head of intelligence in the kingdom, Khaled al-Hamidan, who was appointed to his post just a year ago.

It now appears that if Khashoggi was indeed hoping to advocate for changes in how Saudi Arabia is run, it’s possible that in death, at least in this regard, he may be more successful than in life.