October 17, 2018
Two weeks after Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, the Turkish-Saudi “working group” finally searched the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the scene of the alleged crime.
On Monday, President Trump had a telephone conversation with King Salman and decided to send Secretary Pompeo to Riyadh. After the call, Mr. Trump said it was possible that “rogue killers” were behind the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. A Saudi official told Reuters that the King had ordered the Public Prosecutor to open an internal investigation.
Since all the facts regarding the alleged crime are unlikely to be established with speed, one may look at what has been said by key players and try to draw some conclusions.
In March 2016 candidate Trump said, “If Saudi Arabia was without the cloak of American protection, I don’t think it would be around.”
At his joint press conference with President Macron at the White House on April 24, 2018 President Trump said:
“The United States is embarrassingly into the Middle East… The countries that are there that you all know very well are immensely wealthy; they’re going to have to pay for this. And I think the President and I agree very much on that. And they will pay for it. They will pay for it. We’ve spoken to them. They will pay for it. The United States will not continue to pay. And they will also put soldiers on the ground, which they’re not doing. And we will, in fact, bring lots of people home.
On October 2, 2018, perhaps hours before M. Khashoggi’s disappearance burst into news, President Trump addressing a rally in Mississippi said, “And I love the king, King Salman, but I said, ‘King we’re protecting you. You might not be there for two weeks without us. You have to pay for your military; you have to pay.’”
On October 4, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted, “President Trump repeatedly humiliates the Saudis by saying they can’t last 2 weeks without his support. This is the recompense for the delusion that one’s security can be outsourced.”
In a CBS interview last Saturday President Trump said that there would be “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if it turns out that he was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
On Sunday Saudi Arabia issued a strongly worded statement denying all the allegations regarding Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and said that were Kingdom to become the target of any action, it will respond with greater action.
In response President Trump decided that Secretary Pompeo should go to Riyadh immediately. Normally one would expect someone from the Kingdom to rush to Washington to offer some explanation but in this case, nobody could speak authoritatively for Saudi Arabia other than Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and for obvious reasons he couldn’t leave the country.
Secretary Pompeo had two tasks. Firstly, convincing the Saudis that a timely and thorough investigation would be in their own interest and calming their anger over President Trump’s comments on Saudi dynasty’s durability; secondly, making sure that Turkish-Saudi relations weather the storm.
On Tuesday afternoon as Secretary Pompeo was talking to the Crown Prince Mr. Trump tweeted, “Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate. He was with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the call, and told me that he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter. Answers will be forthcoming.”
Answers President Trump has referred to are unlikely to satisfy the world public opinion. Initially the Saudis said that Mr. Khashoggi had left the consulate. Later they denied any knowledge of what transpired there despite the fact that the hit team has been back in the country for the last two weeks.
There can be no doubt that President Trump’s comments on the survivability of the Saudi dynasty have infuriated the Kingdom’s rulers. The fact that he made such remarks on more than one occasion may have given the Saudis the impression that these are not simply impulsive comments but reflect the deep assessment of the American establishment. Indeed, it is difficult to say that House of Saud stands solidly on its own feet in the turbulent Middle East. President Trump may expect those “wealthy countries to pay and put boots on the ground” but even in Yemen the Kingdom and its Gulf allies are reportedly employing foreign mercenaries. Nonetheless, it is true that instability in the Kingdom would affect the entire Gulf and open the gates of unprecedented trouble not only for the region but also the world threatening vital oil and gas supplies. Thus, whatever weaknesses the House of Saud may have, these become a source of strength in its dealings with the West, primarily Washington, and the guarantee of continued support. However, this support cannot be repaid only by arms purchases. Washington must insistently ask Riyadh for:
- vigorous and transparent cooperation in the combat against extremism regardless of this being violent or not;
- the strictest control of the activities of the so-called Saudi charities in foreign countries; and,
- a quick end to its intervention in Yemen.
King Salman called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday. This is what Saudi News Agency reported on the call:
“Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud telephoned his brother Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to thank the president for welcoming the kingdom’s proposal to form a joint working group to discuss the disappearance of Saudi citizen Jamal Khashoggi.
“The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques stressed the keenness of the Kingdom on its relations with Turkey as much as the brotherly Republic of Turkey is keen on that and that no one will get undermine the strength of this relationship.
“For his part, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of the Republic of Turkey, appreciated the fraternal, distinguished, historical and close relations between the two countries and the two peoples and his keenness to strengthen and develop them.” (1)
This is probably the warmest statement the Kingdom has made on Turkish-Saudi relations in recent years. The truth is Saudi Arabia has traditionally looked at Turkey as a regional rival. Shaping their outlook has been Turkey’s Ottoman legacy, unconfessed envy for the progress Turkey has made under Ataturk’s leadership and hostility towards Turkey’s secularism. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman too has launched some initiatives called “reforms” such as the opening of cinemas and allowing women to drive. Ataturk had accomplished a thousand times more a century ago.
All things considered, Ankara has always done its best to maintain a cordial and correct relationship with the Kingdom. It has looked at Riyadh not as a rival but a regional partner.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (JDP) coming to power in 2002 was probably seen by the Kingdom’s rulers as a window of opportunity for deepening the relationship. And the JDP leaders appeared ready for greater engagement. Because for them the Kingdom’s rulers were the “custodians of the two holy mosques” before everything else. However, with the Arab spring and the war in Syria the relationship went off track. Although the two countries’ leaders were determined to oust President Assad, Turkey’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria marked the end of this newly found warmth. And, Riyadh wasn’t comfortable with Ankara’s championing the Palestinian cause. In August Saudi Arabia committed $100 million to northeast Syria for “stabilization projects” in areas once held by the Islamic State. The Saudi Embassy in Washington said that the money will go toward agriculture, education, roadworks, rubble removal and water service for the region, which is now largely held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council is the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The New York Times reported that the money landed in American accounts on Tuesday, the same day that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in the Saudi capital. An interesting coincidence.
Despite the warm statement on the Salman-Erdogan phone call, the Saudis will have a long-lasting grudge against the Turkish government for its handling of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. This latest statement’s only objective is to secure Turkey’s cooperation in getting Riyadh out of the corner it has put itself into.
Ankara must have felt insulted that Istanbul was chosen for such a horrific undertaking. And the Saudis must have underestimated Ankara’s intelligence capabilities.
Some Western newspapers say that Turkey does not wish to appear as a country secretly listening diplomatic/consular missions. In October 2013, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande demanded talks with the U.S. following allegations that 35 world leaders’ phone calls were monitored by Washington’s security agencies. French president Francois Hollande said: “What is at stake is preserving our relations with the United States. They should not be changed because of what has happened. But trust has to be restored and reinforced.” And, that was the end of the story, publicly at least. The Turkish government needs to realize that dealing with the problem through “leaks by officials” may soon become an unsustainable stance.
During today’s visit to Ankara Secretary Pompeo must have tried to assess firsthand the prospects for improved Turkish-American relations following the release of pastor Brunson.
The list of Turkish-American problems includes Syria, PYD/YPG, FETO, Iran sanctions, Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400s, US threat not to deliver F-35 aircraft, new obstacles to trade not to mention other and related issues. It is a long list and the problems are complicated. This is what happens when a downward spiral is allowed to continue for too long.
Now that the Brunson case is resolved, one cannot help asking whether it was worth all the trouble. The Turkish government should at least draw the following lesson from this episode: if there are foreign individuals engaged in suspicious activities which are hard to prove in black and white terms and likely to lead to controversy, expelling them right away is the better solution. And, this can be presented to the domestic opinion as a display of power and determination which clearly is a priority for the government.
Trump and Erdogan administrations have similar understandings of statecraft but they have differences as well. The fundamental question is whether they would be able to manage the relationship with cool-headedness.
Egypt and the Gulf
A number of Arab countries have issued statements on the Khashoggi murder mystery. These were not uniform. UAE’s statement was one of total support (2). Egypt stressed the importance of revealing the truth. It also said that Egypt warns against trying to exploit this issue politically against Saudi Arabia on arbitrary charges and affirms its support for the Kingdom in its efforts and positions to deal with this event (3). Kuwait rejected all allegations aimed at defaming the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and interfering with its sovereignty (4). Oman’s statement, reflecting the Sultanate’s traditional wisdom was more measured. Nonetheless it expressed support for the Kingdom in its efforts to clarify the truth, and verification before any hasty, prior judgments are made (5).
Thus, Turkey’s relations with Egypt and Riyadh’s Gulf allies are likely to remain strained for the foreseeable future.
If the leaks on Mr. Khashoggi’s tragic death were to be confirmed, this will haunt Saudi Arabia for years because, regardless of who gave the order, killing someone at a consulate and cutting up his body for disposal would only remind people of a Daesh-like horrific crime. As to the question of who gave the order, no matter what the investigations may finally say, the world will draw its conclusions.
Whether this episode would lead to turbulence within the royal family remains to be seen.