De Souad Sbai
“No doubts about the sincerity of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, close cooperation in the investigations between Ankara and Riyadh, appreciation for having recognized that the murder occurred in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and for having brought to justice both the executors and the instigators”: Erdogan’s conference before the parliamentary group of his party must have disappointed those who hoped that the Khashoggi case could lead to a breakdown of relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The media escalation of the past few days – with the spread of images and videos most likely fabricated, and the suspense created around the alleged existence of audio recordings – had deluded about the possibility that the Sultan wanted to follow the allied regime of Qatar and the influential international network of the Muslim Brotherhood in their tug-of-war with Riyadh.
Erdogan, instead, in his account of the Khashoggi case, intelligently or rather cunningly from a formal and diplomatic point of view, limited himself to reaffirming the “truth” already established in the trial carried out by the international mainstream media, refraining from making “revelations” which probably never existed, and legitimizing the line of investigation and action adopted by Saudi Arabia. In this very moment, burning bridges with Riyadh would not benefit his rehabilitation strategy aimed at Europe and the United States, as he is strongly in need of their economic support. Hence the references to the American president Donald Trump, with whom he began a phase of détente after the liberation of Brunson, and to Federica Mogherini representing Brussels.
The Sultan did not fail to reaffirm his neo-nationalist credentials in view of the upcoming administrative elections, underlining that Turkey is a sovereign state, that the killing of Khashoggi took place within the Turkish territory, and that all this should be taken into account during the investigations despite the extraterritoriality of the Saudi consulate. On the other hand, he repeatedly referred to the international community and to the respect of the international laws, in the attempt to shift the attention from the human rights violations and the massive repression of journalists, activists, and opponents aimed at consolidating his grip on the absolute power.
In sum, Erdogan could not treat the Khashoggi case in terms of freedom of press and expression, and therefore has chosen to adopt a moderate posture because it is now the most convenient for the stability of his regime. The international media emphasized the questions to which the Sultan called Saudi Arabia to respond, as if they actually amounted to a tough stance. But with the request to unveil the identity of the “local collaborator” to whom Khashoggi’s body was allegedly delivered, Erdogan seems to have offered Riyadh the possibility to provide an answer freely and without putting any particular pressure. Moreover, it should be Erdogan himself to provide explanations in response to his allegation that Khashoggi’s murder was “premeditated,” as highlighted by the press. It is obvious that an operation of the magnitude such as that which took place in Istanbul can only be the result of intentional planning, but what is actually quite surprising is the inaction of the Turkish security and information services, as they did not notice the coming and going for three consecutive days of private and scheduled airplanes to and from Riyadh with Khashoggi’s executors on board. Or did they pretend not to see?
This question should be answered by the Sultan, who was also very careful not to mention the broader context in which the disappearance and, in general, the figure of the Saudi journalist is to be placed. During the conference, Erdogan played the part of the champion of the “international conscience, which will be satisfied only when all the guilty will be condemned.” Therefore, it would have been inappropriate for him to highlight the active militancy of the journalist in the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which the Sultan is illustrious godfather along with Qatar’s emirs, Hamad and Tamin Al Thani.
Khashoggi had made a clear choice, as demonstrated by an editorial he published on the Washington Post last August 28, where he regretted the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood were prevented from conquering the Middle East during the so-called Arab Spring: an opinion that has nothing to do with free journalism, but that reveals how Khashoggi had become a pawn in the hands of the “Ikhwan” and Qatar, in the context of the ongoing confrontation with the Quartet composed of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt.
The Sultan thus preferred not to provide elements that could have been referred to Ankara’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood and Doha’s regime, nor to the deep Khashoggi’s ties with the Turkish Islamist regime: from his fiancée Hanice Cengiz, niece of one of the founders of Erdogan’s party, to his friendships with senior representatives of the establishment, which however did not help save his life, perhaps because Khashoggi was an expendable pawn in the dark plots of the Muslim Brotherhood.
To those who hoped that the Khashoggi case could have been exploited to make the confrontation in the Middle East even more heated, Erdogan responded in such a way as to avoid an escalation, without interrupting the dialogue with Saudi Arabia. The Sultan now has the opportunity to facilitate the normalization of relations between the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as of the internal situation in Turkey, by releasing the many political prisoners still in jail, coherently with his recent promises to ensure more freedom and human rights. Will he seize it?