Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initially referred to the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2 as “very, very upsetting”. Three weeks later, he told the Turkish parliament that Khashoggi was killed in a premeditated and savage murder. Saudi Arabia has belatedly admitted that Khashoggi was murdered at its consulate in Istanbul, but has blamed a “rogue operation” and denied the involvement of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Khashoggi’s elimination on Turkish soil was a political trigger that may provide Erdoğan with ammunition against Saudi Arabia – his main rival for political leadership of the Muslim world. With Islam’s two holiest cities of Mecca and Medina under their guardianship, the ruling Saud family boasts the title Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques and govern the Hajj and Umra, pilgrimages that all Muslims are expected to make.
Yet shortly after accusations about Khashoggi’s alleged murder were drip-fed by Turkish authorities, Erdoğan spoke at a meeting with faith leaders as part of his bid to cement his religious legitimacy. He was quoted by Turkish agencies as saying that Turkey “is the only country that can lead the Muslim world”.
From his 2002 election as prime minister to his current presidency, Erdoğan has eroded Turkey’s historically secular framework. The Islamisation of Turkey has tilted it away from the West and toward the Middle East. Erdoğan “is focused on making Islam the centrepiece of Turkish politics and sees the country’s foreign policy role as being primarily anti-Western”, explains Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute.
While Saudi Arabia’s royal family may be custodians of the two holy mosques, Erdoğan is drawing on the glory of the Ottoman past, investing in the expansion of Ottoman ports that served as transit hubs for Mecca and Medina, while also increasing his leadership activities in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Crown prince’s image damaged
In so doing, it’s inevitable that Erdoğan will clash with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman. Colloquially known as MBS, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince presents Islam as a “sensible, simple religion that is being hijacked”, arguing that his domestic reforms are an attempt to counter radicalisation and return Islam to a liberal stance. Domestic reform, however, is contrasted with disastrous military operations in Yemen and Syria, as MBS seeks to prove his military might and leverage regional conflict to counter Iranian influence.
Despite the humanitarian costs of regional battles, MBS has cultivated the image of a liberal young leader for Western audiences. So while Erdoğan pushes an Islamic Turkey to lead the Muslim world, MBS prefers courting the West while treating how he handles domestic affairs, whether through arrests or worse, as separate from his US and British alliances.
With the disappearance of Khashoggi, however, the liberal image palatable to Western audiences is under threat. The Washington Post, where Khashoggi was a columnist, is now writing about the crown prince’s “dark and bullying side”. MBS is a split royal, friendly to the West but ruthless in the Middle East.
The pattern is clear: MBS’s Saudi Arabia uses reforms as cover to purge rivals of status and wealth. This was clear during the Ritz Carlton Roundup in November 2017, in which princes and investors were detained in a luxury hotel as part of an anti-corruption purge until agreeing to forego much of their assets. Other reforms serve to distract international media by letting women drive while female activists remain jailed.
Saudi Arabia has led the ongoing blockade of Qatar, which Turkey opposed. Turkey and Qatar’s mutual investments are not the sole reason. Both countries maintain relations with Iran and support the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia regards as a threat to traditional monarchy.
Investors, sponsors and media partners of Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative conference, on 23-25 October in Riyadh have pulled out. The IMF has followed suit and even US President Donald Trump is being pressured by senators to punish Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s fate.
Erdoğan seizing opportunity
Erdoğan is moving quickly. As the Saudis cancelled their annual diplomatic reception in Washington, Erdoğan received US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Ankara. The meeting gave Turkey a chance to push its perspectives on Syria and its demands that the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, abandon Syria’s narrow Manbij region near Turkey’s border, a request the US has been slow to acknowledge.
Having returned US pastor Andrew Brunson from Turkish imprisonment to US soil, Khashoggi’s death and the pressure it is placing on Trump is providing Erdoğan with a springboard to gain a closer relationship with the United States while using the incident to deflect Saudi portrayals of Turkey as a security threat.
Erdoğan is using the Khashoggi incident to gain closer relations with the US and push Turkey’s interests. On October 22, the Turkish press reported that Erdoğan and Trump shared a phone conversation and agreed that Saudi Arabia must come clean on all details of Khashoggi’s death.
Yet Erdoğan’s dreams of leading the Muslim world may not be realised by the Khashoggi affair. Saudi investment in Turkey at a time when the Turkish lira remains weak must be balanced with Erdogan’s ambitions and rivalry. The OIC, headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has officially sided with Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Khashoggi affair, praising the proposal of a joint Turkish-Saudi investigation and arguing that Riyadh is “above suspicions”.
The world seems to disagree with the notion that Riyadh is “above suspicions”. However, commentators have pointed to Iran as the main beneficiary of a Saudi exile’s death on Turkish soil. With Saudi Arabia’s reputation on the line, Riyadh is in no position to portray Iran as a threat to the region.
“Iran has repeatedly seized on Saudi miscalculations to gain leverage and protect itself from regional isolation,” says Chatham House’s Sanam Vakil. While Saudi Arabia is cornered and the world distracted by the brutality of what happened to Khashoggi, Iran can continue quietly building its missile program, rework the nuclear agreement and sell its oil before US sanctions resume in November. Tehran may even consider relations with Saudi Arabia, its Sunni counterpart. After all, how many friends will Saudi Arabia have left?