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Erdogan Takes Aim at MBS: What's Driving Turkey in the Khashoggi Scandal

Turkish President Erdogan’s animosity toward Riyadh goes back to the Arab Spring in late 2010

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and King Salman of Saudi Arabia (L) are pictured during a family photo session at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Istanbul Summit in Istanbul, Turkey April 14, 2016
REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday dismissed attempts by Riyadh to blame Jamal Khashoggi's "savage" killing on rogue operatives, saying the person who ordered the death of the prominent Saudi journalist must "be brought to account."

In a speech to parliament about a case that has sparked outrage around the globe, Erdogan did not mention Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, by name, who some U.S. lawmakers suspect ordered the killing.

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But Erdogan said Turkey would not complete its investigation into Khashoggi's death until all questions were answered and Turkey was told the identity of a local collaborator Riyadh says disposed of the body.

Erdogan’s motivation

The question of what is driving Erdogan to slowly release information about the investigation to pro-government news outlets, which has largely been driving the international narrative around the killing, and his high profile comments condemning the killing is still an open one.

Erdogan’s animosity towards Riyadh goes back to the Arab Spring in late 2010. Erdogan, a devoutly religious man with a plan to further Islam’s reach in Turkey’s government and schools, had hoped like-minded governments across the region would embrace the oppressed Islamists who sought to overthrow despotic regimes in a pro-Democratic wave.

However, when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s first elected president, was overthrown by General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi after a year, Erdogan’s hopes quickly came crashing down. Gulf monarchies and dictatorships have long seen Muslim movements as existential threats, which played a major factor in the ongoing Saudi-led boycott of Qatar.

“Erdogan put all of his money behind the Brotherhood during the Arab uprisings and he’s lost everything” and “gained a lot of enemies: MBS is one of them," said Soner Cagaptay to Bloomberg, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Bloomberg’s Benjamin Harvey adds, “Turkey’s impassioned backing of Mursi and other Brotherhood-inspired movements created a kind of regional anti-Erdogan bloc led by the Saudis, El-Sisi’s Egypt and the U.A.E.’s Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, or MBZ.”

Where Turkey is aiming

Erdogan said in his speech to parliament that he believes the murder goes all the way to the top. "Intelligence and security institutions have evidence showing the murder was planned.... Pinning such a case on some security and intelligence members will not satisfy us or the international community," he said.

"The Saudi administration has taken an important step by admitting to the murder. From now on, we expect them to uncover all those responsible for this matter from top to bottom and make them face the necessary punishments," he said.

Erdogan is likely to continue to push the Saudi leadership in the spotlight as he appears to have a lot to gain from a fractured U.S.-Saudi alliance.  U.S. President Donald Trump, with the help of his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, has made the Saudis a key part of any peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, a reality Erdogan is actively working to change.

MBS, who has a close relationship with Kushner, gave the impression last year that Riyadh endorsed the Trump administration’s still nebulous Middle East peace plan, including U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the king made a public correction, reaffirming Riyadh's commitment to the Arab and Muslim identity of the city.

MBS’s June 2017 blockade of Qatar resulted in Qatar, which the Saudis accused of promoting terrorism through the Muslim Brotherhood, seeking help from Turkey. Erdogan deployed troops to Qatar in show of force to help ensure that the Saudis would not invade. Additionally Erdogan is on the opposite side of the Saudis and the UAE in Syria, where Turkey is closely aligned with Russia and Iran - the Saudis arch-enemy who they are also fighting in Yemen and Lebanon.

Reuters contributed to this report