As they demand answers about his death, friends of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi have drawn some comfort from the unlikely figure of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has overseen his own crackdown on dissent, has jailed journalists and has shuttered media outlets in his country.
Khashoggi’s friends hope Erdogan, who has vowed that Turkey won’t let anyone get away with the “savage” killing of the journalist inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, won’t be diverted from discovering the full details of the Oct. 2 slaying.
“It is not over yet,” the Turkish leader has promised. “We are unraveling, dismantling [the case], and the world is closely following.”
But Erdogan’s midweek speech to the Turkish parliament on Khashoggi’s death, which he had billed just days before as the moment for the “naked truth” to come out, has left them queasy, and has prompted others to question exactly what Turkey’s president wants out of the Khashoggi affair.
In his speech, Erdogan added no new details to what was known already. “He did not drop a bombshell and he did not reveal anything we didn’t know before,” said Gonul Tol of the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based research group, aside from hinting he had personally approved the leaks to the media.
His officials have been drip-feeding to the media lurid information about the grisly slaying in order to “maximize pressure on the Saudis” and to force reluctant admissions from them, said Peter Ricketts, a former British diplomat.
Riyadh first claimed Khashoggi had left the consulate alive, only to be forced to admit the dissident commentator had been killed. But it insisted the killing was a rogue operation by renegade security and intelligence officials.
In a twist that’s adding to the unease of those who want to get to the bottom of the killing, Erdogan spoke by phone Thursday with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man many believe most likely had prior knowledge of the plan to kill Khashoggi. That view appears to be shared partially by U.S. President Donald Trump, who told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, “He’s running things and so if anybody were going to be [informed], it would be him.”
The phone call between the two men, who have often clashed before, is prompting further questions about Erdogan’s objectives. Does he really want the “naked truth” to emerge, or will he parlay Khashoggi’s death into a geopolitical deal serving other purposes, such as leveraging the oil-rich Saudis’ money to help Turkey’s ailing economy?
Reportedly, Erdogan reacted dismissively to an offer of financial aid and investments made by Saudi royal family member Prince Khalid bin Faisal al-Saud during his visit last week to the Turkish capital. But “there’s no evidence about a bargain that would involve a loan or investment by the Saudis in Turkey,” said academic Galip Dalay, a friend of Khashoggi.
Balancing power, economy
But the Saudis have traditionally made problems go away by writing checks, and large Saudi investments could help calm financial markets and restore some confidence in Turkey’s beleaguered economy, analysts said.
Tol said Erdogan has to be careful that the Khashoggi affair doesn’t backfire on Turkey economically. “Gulf countries have played an important role in the Turkish economy,” she said. “Since 2002 when Erdogan first came into office, he has sought to decrease Turkish dependence on European investments and reached out to the Gulf countries.And the Saudis play a huge role in the Turkish economy.”
That’s especially important for Erdogan now, she said, when Turkey is struggling and “can’t secure enough European investments.”
Above all, he must avoid pushing the case to the point of rupture with the Saudis, she said, and that may explain his careful strategy. “You have to give credit to Erdogan for the way he has played his hand very well,” she said in a podcast released Thursday by the Middle East Institute.
Other analysts suspect Erdogan may have more than the Turkish economy in mind.
In the Turkish capital, and among analysts in Europe and America, there’s conjecture that Erdogan’s aims are much broader than securing a single payoff and that they include major geopolitical objectives and a recalibration of the balance of power in the Gulf by dislodging the crown prince, or at the very least persuading the Saudi monarch, King Salman, to rein in his son.
Among Erdogan’s aims, according to analysts, is a likely parlaying of the Khashoggi affair into an end to the Saudis’ economic blockade of Turkish ally Qatar and to halt the kingdom’s antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is aligned with Erdogan’s ruling AKP party.
Western diplomats say that by pressuring the Saudi royal family with astute leaking and withholding of information, the Turkish leader is increasing his leverage. “The one thing the Saudis don’t want to happen is for the [reported] audio tape [of the killing] to be released. Then the fallout would be even harder to contain,” said a former British envoy to the Gulf kingdom. “If Erdogan steers this killing to safe port and minimizes the damage to the Saudi royal family, he will be owed a lot of favors.”