As Saudi Arabia stumbles through a series of absurd and implausible explanations for what happened to dissident Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Istanbul three weeks ago, the Turkish government has held the attention of the international media with a carefully choreographed series of leaks, painting an increasingly vivid picture of Khashoggi’s gruesome murder, the Saudi government’s complicity, and its attempts to cover its tracks.
On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Khashoggi’s murder was the result of a plot carried out by Saudi operatives. “We have strong evidence that this murder was planned,” Erdogan said during a speech to his Justice and Development Party in Ankara. “He was brutally murdered.”
Having drawn the eyes of the world, Erdogan now has an opportunity to humiliate his Saudi rivals before them. That’s assuming he actually has the goods; CIA Director Gina Haspel’s departure for Turkey on Monday suggests that the Trump administration is afraid he does.
Not one to let a crisis go to waste, Erdogan has kept this story alive for news cycle after news cycle and created considerable trouble for the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), and his supporters in Washington and the international business community. The scandal has Americans talking about the ties our government and corporations have to Saudi Arabia to an extent rarely seen since 9/11, and might even mark a turning point in public awareness of how morally compromising these ties really are.
The Turkish leader is clearly leveraging this scandal to achieve something more than merely justice. Erdogan was a personal friend of Khashoggi’s, but he can hardly be counted as an advocate of freedom of the press: He has thrown dozens of journalists in his own prisons and consolidated state control over the media to an unprecedented degree. In fact, Erdogan’s grip on the media has been instrumental in controlling the leakage of information about Khashoggi’s death.
So what, exactly, is Erdogan doing? In brief, he’s using this opportunity to expose MBS to the world as a brute, diminish Saudi Arabia’s standing with the international community, and complicate its efforts to assert hegemonic power in the Middle East.
The regional politics underlying this crisis are characteristically convoluted, opaque to outsiders, and lacking in moral heroes. At its core is an ideological split between the nominally democratic, populist strain of political Islam espoused by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and its Arab sister organization the Muslim Brotherhood, on the one hand; and an anti-Islamist coalition of autocracies primarily composed of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.
Over the past decade and a half, Erdogan has presided over a directional shift in Turkey’s foreign policy, abandoning the pipe dream of becoming part of Europe in favor of recapturing its Ottoman-era hegemony in the Arab Middle East. At first, Erdogan pursued this objective gently, with a noninterventionist policy described as “no problems with neighbors,” but since the events of the Arab Spring, Turkey has gotten caught up in its neighbors’ problems to a significant degree.
Turkey played an active role in encouraging the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 and 2012, lending support to the Free Syrian Army and publicly supporting the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt under president Mohamed Morsi, which General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew in 2013. While they are all more than happy to leverage Islam to their own political ends, the Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian leaders see Muslim Brotherhood–style Islamism as a threat to their own authority and thus the stability of their countries, and so have taken draconian steps to crack down on the organization. Erdogan condemned the coup that brought Sisi to power, whereas Saudi Arabia supported it.
Riyadh has also antagonized Ankara by supporting Syrian Kurdish rebel groups, whose success Turkey fears would encourage separatism among its own Kurdish population. For its part, Turkey has cultivated alliances with Arab countries that are antagonistic to the Saudi-Emirati alliance or feel threatened by it, such as Qatar and most recently Kuwait.
In this context, it is easy to see why Erdogan might hope to leverage the scandal of Khashoggi’s murder to hobble Prince Mohammed’s ambitions and thereby slow the expansion of Saudi power in the region. Deposing the crown prince and sidelining him within the Saudi Establishment would be a big win for Erdogan, but delegitimizing him in the eyes of the world would be nearly as good.
A key component of this strategy is to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and Western countries, particularly the United States. Even if MBS survives the crisis (as he likely will), he may do so without the robust support he currently enjoys in the U.S. The release of American pastor Andrew Brunson from Turkish custody not long after the Khashoggi scandal broke suggests that buttering up the Trump administration is indeed one of Erdogan’s objectives here. Even as American-Turkish relations have been at a nadir recently, Erdogan could be signaling to Washington that he would make a less problematic partner than MBS (though that’s not necessarily true).
At the same time, Turkey conducts billions of dollars in trade with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the Saudis are a major regional power, so it would not be in Erdogan’s interests to engender a complete diplomatic rift with the wealthy Gulf countries. Another key fact to keep in mind is that Turkey’s economy is in the midst of a crisis, thanks largely to Erdogan’s mismanagement of it. Therefore, another possible aim of this pressure campaign would be to extract a hefty sum of financial support from either Riyadh or Washington in exchange for pretending to buy the Saudi government’s story and declaring the case closed.
By gradually leaking their evidence of Khashoggi’s murder rather than dumping it, the Turkish government may have been giving the Saudis a window of opportunity to buy their silence. If that was the case, however, Erdogan’s address would appear to represent the closing of that window. If Turkey comes out with slam-dunk evidence that Khashoggi was murdered on Prince Mohammed’s orders, it could cost the prince something that no amount of money can ever buy back.