Khashoggi disappearance sparks a Turkish-Saudi war of words, if not deeds

Ozan Kose, AFP | A Turkish police officer outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 8, 2018.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have conflicting accounts of the disappearance last week of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But can Turkey take on the oil-rich Gulf kingdom and what role can the US play in growing diplomatic spat?


Walking down corridors, entering wood-panelled rooms and bare basements, opening cupboards and cabinets, the Saudi consul-general in Istanbul, Turkey, seemed like a real estate agent displaying a new property on the market over the weekend.

Except the address under scrutiny was not for sale. Mohammad al-Otaibi was showing a news team around the premises, trying to reinforce the official Saudi position that missing dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was not inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Exactly a week after Khashoggi – a Saudi citizen and US green card-holder – disappeared, the international community has been occasionally subjected to some absurd scenes in the low-grade war of words between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over the case.

Ankara maintains the high-profile journalist never emerged – alive at least – from an October 2 appointment at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Riyadh denies the allegation, opening cupboards and air conditioning panels to journalists to assert its position.

As alarm over Khashoggi’s wellbeing and whereabouts mounts, Turkey – the world’s biggest jailer of journalists – has been put in the peculiar position of championing the cause of a dissident commentator and former newspaper editor.

But the Turkish allegations are being released via a series of leaks and statements by unelected officials followed by an apparent downplaying of the accusations by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – a man not known for his measured discourse. As valuable investigative time slips by, there are growing fears that economic and geopolitical interests might cloud any clarity on the shocking disappearance of a leading Saudi journalist and that whoever is responsible for it could get away – literally or metaphorically – with murder.

The contradictory claims have sparked a diplomatic spat between the two Sunni powerhouses that could shake up the way business is done in one of the world’s most volatile regions. It also threatens to pit a seasoned, irascible politician against a brash young prince who has little experience encountering dissent.

Murder allegations downplayed by Erdogan

A day after the Saudi consul conducted his press tour of the Istanbul premises, Yasin Aktay, an adviser to Erdogan, who told Reuters that Turkey believes Khashoggi was killed in the consulate and that 15 Saudis – who arrived and left Turkey on October 2 – were allegedly involved in the disappearance.

Saudi Arabia has a long history of using intimidation and enticement to stifle dissent. The allegations have mounted over the past year since the young Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known by his initials, MBS – began seizing the levers of power in the oil-rich Gulf kingdom. The bizarre November 2017 detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh, which was preceded by the baroque quarantine of leading Saudi businessmen at the Ritz Carlton hotel, has underscored the fact that MBS is willing to go through great lengths to get his way.

As an internationally reputed commentator who publicly criticised the recent crackdowns on dissent and the Saudi-led war in Yemen, Khashoggi was in the crosshairs of the powerful crown prince and had told colleagues he was worried for his life.

But Khashoggi is also a well-connected Saudi insider and one-time advisor to the kingdom’s former intelligence chief. So while his disappearance shocked, but did not surprise Saudi dissidents and experts, Aktay’s revelations about his murder by a hit-squad chilled them to the bone.

Hours later though, after news alerts of the alleged killing went out across the world, Erdogan appeared to downplay the murder allegations. Expressing a hope that Khashoggi would emerge unharmed, the Turkish president told reporters, “I still have good expectations. We hope not to come across an undesirable situation about missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

A ‘big humiliation for Turkey’

Turkish media though has not been as circumspect. The Khashoggi story has been headline news over the past few days, with commentators calling the Saudi journalist’s disappearance a diplomatic humiliation for Turkey. “Turkish columnists are saying that whatever Saudi officials have done, whether it’s smuggling Khashoggi out of the country alive or killing him, this is a big humiliation for Turkey. This happened on Turkish territory. The consulate might be Saudi territory, but it is an island in Turkey,” explained FRANCE 24’s Jasper Mortimer, reporting from Ankara.

On Monday, Erdogan appeared to up the discourse during a visit to Hungary, but he stopped short of providing evidence into any of the Turkish official or non-official claims, calling instead for patience until an investigation was concluded. "We have to get an outcome from this investigation as soon as possible. The consulate officials cannot save themselves by simply saying 'he has left'," Erdogan told a news conference in Budapest. "If he left, you have to prove it with footage. Those who ask Turkish authorities where he is should ask what happened."

Meanwhile unnamed Turkish officials continued to provide leaks and statements to the press. The Washington Post on Monday published the last photograph of Khashoggi so far, showing a still from Turkish CCTV footage of the journalist, dressed in grey slacks and a black blazer, entering the consulate.

A day later, Turkish security officials told the national TRT TV station that the 15 Saudis who left Istanbul on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance had taken CCTV footage from inside the consulate when they left Turkey.

Saudi Arabia has denied the claims and has granted Turkey access to its consulate in Istanbul, the Turkish foreign ministry revealed Tuesday.

Ideological split between Sunni powerhouses

The Khashoggi case has exacerbated the already strained relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey backed Qatar in an intra-Gulf split between Saudi Arabia and Qatar last year, with Ankara helping Doha circumvent an economic blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and its ally, the UAE (United Arab Emirates). Earlier this year, Ankara signed an agreement with Doha to establish a military base in northern Qatar, earning Saudi ire over the strategic security and defence deal between the two countries.

The Saudi journalist’s disappearance in Istanbul has also touched a personal spot in Ankara power circles. “The fact that Jamal Khashoggi was friendly with Erdogan and senior figures in the [ruling] AK Party and that he had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood makes his disappearance a serious diplomatic humiliation for Turkey,” explained Emre Demir, a Paris-based Turkey expert. “Turkey might be the last government to play advocate of press freedom. But that’s not Ankara’s perspective, they see him as a friend, not really a journalist.”

The tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia go back to an ideological rift in the Sunni Muslim world between the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that participates in the democratic process and calls for the political representation of all believers. Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud however considers the group a terrorist organisation and views the Brotherhood as a threat to the official Wahabism espoused by the kingdom. The AK Party has historic ties to the Brotherhood dating back to the days of the party’s predecessor, the Welfare Party, which was outlawed by Turkey’s secular establishment in the late 1990s.

Economic ties that still bind Sunni brothers

But while the two Sunni powerhouses have an ideological rift, Saudi Arabia also has major trade and economic interests in Turkey, which Ankara has been careful to maintain particularly since the Turkish lira began plunging this year.

Saudi Arabia is a major market for Turkish companies, while many Saudi businesses have invested in Turkish companies. Over half-a-million Saudi tourists visit Turkey every year and the oil-rich Gulf kingdom is one of Turkey’s top 20 export destinations.

“Ankara has been careful not to take direct shots at Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. They actively supported Qatar but never openly criticised the new Saudi regime, there has always been ambiguity there. Saudi Arabia is too important for Ankara to openly criticise,” explained Demir.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have also managed to cooperate on Syria, explained James Dorsey, senior fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, in a blog post.

Both countries support the Sunni resistance against Syria’s Alawite president, Bashar al-Assad. Saudi-Turkish cooperation in Syria “helps Turkey create a sphere of influence in areas of Syria near Turkey’s border that are controlled by Turkish troops and administered by Turkey,” noted Dorsey. Riyadh also helps Ankara contain Kurdish troops and officials linked to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which is considered a Marxist-Leninist group by both countries.

Given the economic and geopolitical ties that bind Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Demir believes the Khashoggi case may strain, but not snap, diplomatic relations between the two countries. “Turkey and Saudi Arabia have a way to continue their cooperation especially on the economic front. I think it’s a huge problem, but it won’t be a deal-breaker.”

A chance to mend Turkish-US ties

What could affect Saudi Arabia is a strong response from the US. While US President Donald Trump has forged close ties with the world’s largest oil producer, pressure from within the US establishment and ordinary Americans – including Khashoggi’s US colleagues at the Washington Post, where he had a regular column – could strain ties between Washington and Riyadh.

Washington has repeatedly called for a resolution to the Saudi-Qatar spat and criticism is mounting in Congress over the US role in the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen.

While Saudi authorities have forged ties with the Trump administration over Iran, the Sunni kingdom’s arch Shiite rival, US public opinion has long been suspicious of the House of Saud. “Remember, the American public has never had sympathy for the petro-monarchy, especially since the September 11, 2001 attacks and the fact that 15 Saudi nationals were among the 19 suicide bombers. So there are more and more parameters that can hinder Donald Trump and the pressures are likely to reach a crescendo,” said Karim Sader, a political scientist and Gulf consultant, in an interview with FRANCE 24 (in French).

Nearly a week after Khashoggi’s disappearance, Trump finally made a statement on the case on Monday, saying he was “concerned” about the incident. "I don't like hearing about it and hopefully that will sort itself out. Right now, nobody knows anything about it,” said Trump. "There's some pretty bad stories about it. I do not like it," he added.

Trump’s statement might have lacked teeth, but a rap from Washington, in whatever shape or form, is more likely to rattle Saudi Arabia than any retaliatory moves by Turkey.

That could provide an opportunity for Turkey to mend ties with the US, which have been strained since the 2016 Turkish coup attempt and the detention of a US pastor in Turkey. “While Khashoggi’s disappearance is tragic, it can make Turkey look cooperative,” noted Demir. “Turkey has the higher moral ground and it’s an opportunity for Ankara to further normalise relations with Washington DC.”

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