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The killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul could not have come at a worse time for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Economic troubles have forced him to mute his anti-Western rhetoric: the country faces a currency crisis, double-digit inflation, and an enormous current account deficit. Erdogan has to fix Turkey’s badly damaged relationships with Europe and Washington, even while managing a fragile partnership with Russia in Syria. The prospect of a crisis with Saudi Arabia, which is a major investor in Turkey and with whose regime he has studiously tried to remain cordial, must have initially overwhelmed Turkey’s strongman.
If anyone can turn a burden this size into an opportunity, it is Erdogan. In fact, the Khashoggi crisis has proved an unexpected opportunity for Turkey. At a time when its reputation has been tarnished by the jailing of journalists and the violation of other human rights, Erdogan has won praise for highlighting Khashoggi’s plight. And by leaking evidence of Saudi official complicity, including by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known by his initials, MbS), he has dealt a major blow to Turkey’s historic rival and driven a wedge between Washington and Riyadh.
But Erdogan is playing a difficult, and dangerous, game. He may be able to get even more out of Saudi Arabia and the United States if he can convince them he has incriminating evidence. If he does not, he could lose it all.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have long competed for religious and political primacy in the Sunni Muslim world. That rivalry has intensified under Erdogan, who has restored a religious dimension to Turkey’s political leadership and whose ideological lineage can be traced to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Erdogan’s Turkey poses a particular threat to Saudi regional supremacy. With a ruling elite that considers itself the rightful heir to the Ottoman legacy, and promulgating a less austere and punitive version of Islam than Saudi Salafism, Turkey has come to be seen as offering an alternative model of Muslim governance. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings, Arab Islamists looked to Turkey as an example of a country where an Islamist-rooted party came to power through electoral politics, without having to abandon its conservative agenda. The country that once carried out the most radical secularization program in the Muslim world was now governed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which represented a form of Islamism compatible with democracy. For Arab liberals, the AKP’s moderation seemed to offer a third way between secular authoritarian governments and radical Islamists, a model under which Islamist parties could be engaged in a democratic process.
Erdogan’s Turkey poses a particular threat to Saudi regional supremacy.
Turkey’s rising image has rattled the Saudis. The conflict between the two countries’ visions for the region started to become apparent in 2013, when Erdogan heavily criticized the coup in Egypt that toppled his close ally Mohamed Morsi, while the Saudis praised the Egyptian army for saving the country. The rise to power of MbS further exacerbated tensions between Riyadh and Ankara. Turkey’s Islamists view the young prince as a pawn of the United States and his vow to turn Saudi Arabia into a moderate Islamic country as a U.S.-Israeli imperial plan to undermine true Islam. From Ankara’s perspective, the crown prince’s close alliance with Washington and his reckless and aggressive approach to policy create further instability and strengthen Iran’s hand in the region.
The tension between the two governments intensified when MbS described Turkey as part of a “triangle of evil,” along with Iran and hard-line Islamist groups, in a meeting with Egyptian journalists in March 2018. The crown prince’s remarks summed up Riyadh’s deep suspicion of a country that had sided with Qatar in its dispute with the Saudi-led bloc, hosted Muslim Brotherhood leaders who fled Egypt after the coup, and worked closely with Iran in Syria. In Turkey, meanwhile, the news media reported that Saudi officials had met with Turkey’s archenemy the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria—feeding fears in Ankara that the prince was intent on undercutting Turkish interests in the region. Saudi Arabia’s subsequent announcement that it had contributed $100 million for “stabilization projects” in territories held by Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey considers to be terrorists, added insult to injury.
Even while the Turkish media grow angrier at Saudi Arabia’s actions, Erdogan himself has steered clear of directly criticizing the Saudi leadership. He dispatched a small contingent of troops to Qatar following the economic blockade, then assured Gulf nations that Turkish troops were no threat to the region. He did not utter a word after the Saudi announcement of support to Kurdish-held territories, nor has he raised his voice against Riyadh’s brutal war in Yemen. Economic considerations have played a role in Erdogan’s reluctance to escalate tensions with Riyadh: Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf countries, has helped Erdogan to reduce Turkey’s dependence on Europe by becoming a major investor in and one of the top buyers of Turkish real estate. The two countries have enjoyed close economic ties since Erdogan took office.
Similar considerations factor into Turkey’s handling of the Khashoggi incident. Turkish officials claim they have the audio recording of the killing. But Ankara is reluctant to stand alone against Riyadh and wants to frame the issue as a global matter rather than a bilateral one between the two countries. To that end, unnamed Turkish officials, clearly on orders from Erdogan, have been leaking information to the Western news media in order to increase global pressure on the crown prince. Turkish media and pro-government circles have expressed outrage about the killing and suggested that it could not have happened without the approval of top leadership in Saudi Arabia, but have refrained from naming MbS directly.
Ankara’s efforts to draw international attention to the killing and put pressure on MbS have paid off. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that he is “deeply troubled” by the incident. Key European countries have pressed Saudi Arabia to provide facts on Khashoggi’s killing. Several companies have pulled out of Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative conference, which began in Riyadh on Tuesday.
Turkey seems to have enough evidence to inflict further damage on Saudi Arabia, but that would more deeply rupture relations with Riyadh, something Erdogan is reluctant to do. Instead, he prefers to undermine the crown prince while maintaining cordial relations with King Salman. This would solve Ankara’s MbS problem but keep Saudi investments flowing into Turkey. In discussions that have been taking place between the two governments since the killing, Erdogan might be trying to leverage the evidence he has to bring a badly needed infusion of financial aid from Riyadh. So far, Erdogan’s response to the affair has been both strong and careful.
Ankara may also be playing for advantage with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has made MbS the linchpin of its Middle East policy and desperately wants the Khashoggi issue to go away. U.S.-Turkish ties have recently been strained to the breaking point. Turkey has angered Washington by deciding to purchase a Russian S-400 missile defense system and by arresting American citizens on dubious terrorism charges. The United States has inflamed Ankara by choosing to cooperate with a Syrian Kurdish militia that Ankara considers a terrorist organization. Turkey has temporarily cleared the air with Trump by releasing an American pastor it jailed for two years on terrorism charges, but the tensions are far from over. The Trump administration’s impending energy sanctions on Iran will provide another flash point, as Turkey depends on Iran for its energy needs and says it will not comply with sanctions. Turkey has been here before: the state-owned Halkbank faces major fines from the U.S. Treasury for its violation of sanctions on Iran. This fine is likely to exacerbate the country’s economic woes ahead of local elections in 2019. Erdogan could use the evidence he claims to have in order to recalibrate Turkey’s relations with Washington and extract concessions, such as more leniency in the fine or a waiver of the sanctions.
Turkey seems to have enough evidence to inflict further damage on Saudi Arabia, but that would more deeply rupture relations with Riyadh.
President Erdogan knows that he has to tread carefully to keep his leverage over Washington and Riyadh and avoid a rupture in relations with either. He did just that on Tuesday, in an address to the Turkish parliament. He called the killing a “premeditated murder,” refuting Saudi Arabia’s claims that Khashoggi died in a scuffle at the Saudi consulate. He dropped heavy hints that the crown prince was behind the murder but continued to refrain from naming him directly, and he praised King Salman for his integrity. He did not reveal everything he knew about the killing, so that he can continue to use some evidence as leverage. The ideal outcome from his perspective is that King Salman dislodges MbS.
The odds of that outcome appear grim, especially if the Trump administration decides to stick by the crown prince. But after weeks of leaks and increasing pressure from Congress, President Trump has reluctantly toughened his rhetoric on Saudi Arabia. CIA Director Gina Haspel just returned from a trip to Ankara to discuss the matter with Turkish officials, and she briefed Trump yesterday morning. If Haspel discovered that the Turks have a lot more evidence in hand, Trump might be forced to take an even tougher stance against the crown prince, and Erdogan could leverage the evidence he has to advance Turkish interests. But if, instead, the United States establishes that the Turks do not have evidence linking MbS directly to the killing, Washington could choose to stick with the Saudi narrative that it was the work of rogue killers. That would not only weaken Erdogan’s hand but make Turkey the target of further hostile moves by an angry rival. In the worst-case scenario for Erdogan, the Khashoggi affair results in further contact between Saudi officials and the PKK, more aggressive Saudi attempts to undercut the influence Turkey is trying to build in places such as Kuwait or the Red Sea, and less investment from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries in Turkey. The stakes are high, and Erdogan needs to play his hand wisely.