October 26, 2018
The website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs states the following on bilateral political relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia:
“Turkey has deep-rooted historical and cultural ties with Saudi Arabia and enjoys excellent relations in all fields based on friendship, fraternity, mutual respect and common interests. Being two important countries of our region and the Islamic world, Turkey and Saudi Arabia closely cooperate towards preserving regional peace and stability. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia share the political will to further deepen their relations in all fields…”
The reality is different.
U.S. State Department fact sheet on Saudi Arabia also mentions a long-standing bilateral relationship highlighting common interests. It says:
“… Saudi Arabia’s unique role in the Arab and Islamic worlds, its possession of the world’s largest reserves of oil, and its strategic location all play a role in the long-standing bilateral relationship between the Kingdom and the United States… Saudi Arabia plays an important leadership role in working toward a peaceful and prosperous future for the region and is a strong partner in security and counterterrorism efforts, providing military, diplomatic, and financial cooperation…”
Again, the reality is different as the increasing souring of relations showed towards the end of President Obama’s second term as a result of Riyadh’s failure to convince the Obama administration that it was effectively combating extremism and the war in Yemen. President Trump’s Washington is now struggling to determine how it should handle the current crisis so that its “not so steady to start with” relationship with the Kingdom is kept on track.
With Jamak Khashoggi’s tragic death Turkey’s relationship with Riyadh has also become more complicated than before.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, in an interview with newspaper editors in Cairo in March 2018 said that Turkey, Iran and extremist groups represented a “triangle of evil” in the region. This was widely reported in the Egyptian media and must have infuriated Turkey’s political leadership. Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Ankara issued a statement saying that MBS had mentioned not Turkey but the Muslim Brotherhood and radical groups.
His comments must have reflected the Kingdom’s frustration with Ankara’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and the crumbling partnership in Syria. This was a remarkable departure from Riyadh’s tradition of discreet diplomacy and low-key public statements.
A month later during his visit to the U.S. the Crown Prince gave Jeffrey Goldberg an interview which was published in The Atlantic on April 2, 2018. In response to Mr. Goldberg’s referring to “the triangle” he said, “First in the triangle we have the Iranian regime that wants to spread their extremist ideology, their extremist Shiite ideology… The second part of the triangle is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is another extremist organization… And the other part is the terrorists—al-Qaeda, ISIS—that want to do everything with force. Al-Qaeda leaders, ISIS leaders, they were all Muslim Brotherhood first. Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of ISIS…” (*)
He was careful to avoid another openly hostile mention Turkey but by implication presented Turkey as a supporter of extremism. The damage was done. Turkish leadership was not going to forget these high-level public affronts from the Kingdom. On top of this came Jamal Khashoggi’s tragic end. The choice of Istanbul again offended them. And, they knew that any investigation would inevitably lead to MBS and his inner circle of collaborators.
On Tuesday, “Intelligence and security institutions have evidence showing the murder was planned … Pinning such a case on a handful of security and intelligence members will not satisfy us or the international community,” President Erdoğan said at the Justice and Development Party group meeting. “From the person who gave the order, to the person who carried it out, they must all be brought to account.”
The next day, MBS called him and Riyadh said that they discussed the necessary steps to highlight citizen Jamal Khashoggi’s case with joint efforts.
And, addressing more than 3,000 business leaders from around the world at the Future Investment Initiative, he accused unidentified critics of trying to use the Khashoggi case to “drive a wedge” between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. He pledged that this would not happen as long as his father is king and he is the crown prince.
Thus, for the Crown Prince, Turkey turned from being part of the “triangle of evil” into a solid friend. This may have surprised some but in reality, this is the Middle East of shifting alliances, behind the scenes deals, proxy wars and more.
On a very brief visit to Ankara on Wednesday, CIA Director Gina Haspel “reportedly” listened to audio capturing the interrogation and killing of Jamal Khashoggi. It seems that the Turkish government while calling Khashoggi’s death “a ferocious murder” is determined, at this stage at least, to keep the content of the audio very close to its chest. So, one cannot help asking whether the audio contains something more revealing, more radioactive than a gruesome murder.
Turkish-Saudi relations will continue a downward trend in the foreseeable future, all the more so if MBS stays in power. The reality is that the two countries have never been close but they have managed not to carry their differences into the public domain. For Turkey Saudi Arabia’s leaders were the custodians of the Two Holy Mosques and for the Saudis Turkey was a regional power. Genuine friendship between secular Turkey and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, however, would have gone against the grain of their founding principles.
Some observers refer to a leadership competition of the Sunni world between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. There may be a competition for power, influence but leadership is something else. Even if regimes friendlier to Turkey were to come to power across the Arab world, Turkey’s becoming a “big brother” would always remain a myth because of its Ottoman legacy. A democratic Turkey inspiring the Middle East, the narrative of a decade ago, was another story.
President Trump is desperate to save America’s economic cooperation with Saudi Arabia. It may be that Gina Haspel wasn’t in Ankara just for the audio but also had a message. Given President Trump’s ability to change the U.S. agenda, the Khashoggi case may soon cease to dominate the headlines.
According to Reuters, “There were more than 25 deals worth $56 billion signed during the three-day Future Investment Initiative conference,” Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih told state television on Thursday, adding that U.S. companies accounted for most of those contracts.
The European Union says that, like its partners, it insists on the need for continued thorough, credible and transparent investigation, shedding proper clarity on the circumstances of the killing and ensuring full accountability of all those responsible for it. No doubt, however, that they too would prefer to safeguard their economic cooperation with the Kingdom and fear any disruption to its internal instability.
Moreover, the days of family consensus in choosing the new king are now a thing of the past and the Crown Prince seems firmly in control. Sam Kiley reported in the CNN that for Saudi liberals, though, questions over the role of the prince in the mysterious death remain troubling — even shameful. But they fear a future in which he’s weakened. “He got rid of the mutawa (religious police). They controlled every aspect of our lives and the hardline clerics stifled the country. MBS got rid of them.”
To conclude, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if high principals were again to fall victim to diverse interests.