Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the leader of a government that has jailed more journalists than any other in the world. Yet he opened the section of his speech devoted to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi with condolences not just to his family and friends, but to the “media world” as well.
Interestingly, he said nothing on Tuesday about Khashoggi’s work as a journalist, his criticism of the Saudi leadership and his support for a brand of political Islam similar to the one Erdogan himself has championed. Erdogan didn’t show much emotion or outrage and, despite promising the “naked truth,” didn’t add much to what was already known.
The two new pieces of information Erdogan supplied during his weekly parliamentary speech to party members were that an advance team of Saudis scouted out possible burial sites; and that the hard drive of the surveillance system at the consulate in Istanbul was removed in advance of Khashoggi’s murder. These items were specifically picked to blow away what is now the official Saudi version that Khashoggi’s death was somehow the result of a rogue operation gone wrong.
He held back, however, on what the Turkish authorities know about what actually happened behind the consulate’s walls. Was this because Erdogan did not want to reveal how Turkey has been monitoring goings-on within the building? Or is he simply keeping the information in reserve to subtly pressure Riyadh.
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The Turkish president didn’t just leave out the grisly details of the murder itself. He didn’t mention any names either – save that of King Salman, who he addressed respectfully as a fellow leader.
This wasn’t the same Erdogan who often viciously attacks his rivals with angry slurs. He was speaking with all the politeness of a mafia don informing his victim, “I know where you live.” He paid utmost respect to the king, repeatedly using his full title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. But there was no missing the menace.
The man everyone has been talking about whom Erdogan didn’t mention was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But it was clear to whom he was referring when he said that the question of who gave the orders would have to be answered, and that justice would have to done “at the highest levels.”
Erdogan ended the Khashoggi chapter in his speech with a polite but firm demand of the Saudi king that the 18 men allegedly involved in the murder be put on trial in Istanbul, where the crime took place.
There is no question of that ever happening. The Saudis, under the terms of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, are not obliged to extradite the alleged perpetrators – and they certainly have no intention of allowing any foreign authority to question them and reveal who actually gave the order.
Erdogan’s message to the Saudis, and to the other governments he alluded to in his speech (Egypt and the United Arab Emirates), is that he plans to milk the Khashoggi murder for all he can. He has been gifted an unexpected lever of international pressure over the Saudi-led camp in the Middle East, which has been defying him since the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. He won’t relinquish that lever anytime soon.
The presidential press office will have informed him of the unprecedented global attention around his speech Tuesday, and that the direct broadcast by his government’s English-language TRT World broke its ratings record. Erdogan may be one of the world’s biggest suppressors of free journalism, but he now has control of a media cause célèbre. To keep the media interested, he will make sure to either leak or deliver further speeches with any more information he holds.