In the three weeks since a Saudi journalist was killed inside his country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey has led a relentless campaign to hold Saudi Arabia accountable.
Turkish authorities have doled out leaks to the international press — certainly authorized by Ankara’s highest officials because of its tight control on the media — which increased speculation that Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was gruesome.
The latest reports indicate that the journalist’s body parts had been found in the garden of Riyadh’s consul general’s home in Istanbul, and that a body double put on Khashoggi’s clothes shortly after he was killed.
Then came Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s speech on Tuesday, in which he denounced Saudi Arabia for initially trying to deny involvement in the killing. After weeks of lying, Riyadh only admitted that Khashoggi was dead four days ago. “Covering up this kind of savagery will hurt the conscience of all humanity,” Erdoğan said during his weekly address to parliament.
Why has Turkey gone to such great lengths to put — and keep — pressure on Saudi Arabia? One reason is that the murder happened in Turkey, and that’s embarrassing for Erdoğan’s government.
“The Turks are upset that the Saudis killed a person in Istanbul,” Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington, told me. “It is a grotesque violation of protocol.”
But more importantly, Ankara and Riyadh are locked in a years-long battle for the future of the region, particularly over the importance of religion and Western influence in its politics.
Bashing Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi affair — specifically Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, the country’s de facto leader — works well for Turkey. It gives Ankara a momentary, but no less critical, advantage in the struggle.
“It’s a situation where what is right and beneficial seem to coincide,” says Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia are “on opposite sides of a grand Middle Eastern debate”
The break in the Ankara-Riyadh relationship dates back to when democratic hopes sparked by the Arab Spring fizzled out in Egypt.
Ankara backed Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group, after he won the country’s June 2012 election to replace strongman Hosni Mubarak. Riyadh didn’t like the vote’s outcome, mostly because it believes the Muslim Brotherhood proved an existential threat to Riyadh’s monarchical, authoritarian rule.
So when Egypt’s military ousted Morsi in July 2013, just over a year after the election, Saudi Arabia supported the overthrow. Riyadh has since backed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general who remains in power after he orchestrated the coup d’etat.
That kick-started the standoff. “Turkey and Saudi Arabia now see each other as leaders on opposite sides of a grand Middle Eastern debate about stability versus populism,” Eissenstat, who is also affiliated with the Project on Middle East Democracy, told me.
In effect, Turkey viewed Morsi’s election as emblematic of what the region’s future could be — an area where popular demonstrations and democratic politics can overthrow authoritarian powers. But Saudi Arabia saw it as a threat to the status quo, and therefore supported the Egyptian military’s plans to remove the duly elected leader.
The two countries also disagree about how much influence America should have in the Middle East. Riyadh has courted its US alliance since 1945, and since then has viewed Washington as a staunch economic and military supporter. Without the US, experts say, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t be the regional power it is today.
Erdoğan’s Ankara, however, wants Washington to have less sway in the Middle East. Even though Turkey is a NATO member, it has in recent years moved closer to US adversaries like Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. It’s even battling US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria, mostly because the country sees those forces as an extension of a terrorist group.
And the US-Turkey relationship reached a boiling point this year over Ankara’s detention of US pastor Andrew Brunson. Turkish authorities unlawfully held Brunson for two years, claiming he was a spy and worked with terrorists. President Donald Trump sanctioned and paced tariffs on Ankara over the imprisonment in August, severely hurting Erdoğan’s economy. Turkey finally caved and released Brunson into US custody earlier this month, but the relationship remains fraught.
Finally, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are on opposite sides of the Qatar blockade. In 2017, Riyadh started a diplomatic war with the tiny Gulf country because it championed the Arab Spring protests and political Islam, and used Al Jazeera to do it. That threatened the monarchy. It also didn’t help that Qatar grew closer to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s decades-long regional rival.
So as it stands, Turkey and Saudi Arabia remain in bitter opposition. That’s why Ankara took advantage of the Khashoggi situation to “try and shape Saudi foreign policy in line with Turkish interests,” Stein told me. “Those interests would be enhanced if MBS is reined in.”
Erdoğan wants MBS to lose power. He may get his wish.
MBS is at odds with Erdoğan. The Saudi crown prince is the architect of Riyadh’s close relationship with the United States, and the Qatar blockade. He despises the Muslim Brotherhood and wants to keep his royal family in power.
Because of MBS’s authority in the kingdom, many believe he at least knew of — if not outright ordered — the Saudi plan to kill Khashoggi. MBS had reason to want Khashoggi dead, as many of his writings criticized MBS’s lurch toward one-man rule in Riyadh.
It’s no wonder, then, that Ankara continues to leak damaging information that could cause MBS to lose his growing authority.
“If the pressure of international censure is great enough to lead the Saudi king to curb the prince’s power, it will be a show of diplomatic strength for Turkey in what has become a regional standoff,” Jenny White, a Turkey expert at Stockholm University, told me.
“The Turkish government’s relentless daily drips of damning information about Khashoggi’s murder has put the Saudis on the defensive,” she continued.
It’s clear that Erdoğan is personally targeting MBS with leaks and even public statements.
“Intelligence and security institutions have evidence showing the murder was planned,” the Turkish president said during his Tuesday speech. “From the person who gave the order, to the person who carried it out, they must all be brought to account.”
It looks like his gambit may be working. MBS’s father — King Salman, Saudi Arabia’s actual ruler — has shown signs of wanting to curb his son’s power. Here’s one example: On October 19, Saudi authorities arrested Saud al-Qahtani, a close aide to MBS, as part of their investigation into what happened to Khashoggi. However, it doesn’t appear that the internal probe will officially blame MBS.
Still, the slow doling of leaks has put pressure on the US, Saudi Arabia’s staunch ally, to start to break with the kingdom. Republican lawmakers and even Trump have started to castigate Riyadh over Khashoggi’s death. If Ankara wanted to drive a wedge — however small — between the US and Saudi Arabia, it’s succeeding.
It’s therefore likely that Erdoğan’s pressure campaign will continue until he gets what he wants: a weakened Saudi Arabia, and especially a damaged MBS.
“I don’t think Turkey is going to drop this,” says Eissenstat.