Ankara, Riyadh seen as facing off for soul of Sunni world
Turkish authorities on Wednesday charged 20 Saudi suspects, including two former top aides to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the gruesome 2018 killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Prosecutors in Istanbul said the murder inside the Saudi consulate in the city was planned in advance. They accuse Saudi Arabia’s former deputy intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Assiri, and Saud al-Qahtani, until recently a close adviser to the crown prince – popularly known as MbS – of ordering a Saudi hit team to kill Khashoggi.
The prosecutor’s statement said arrest warrants had been issued for the 20 men, and that “red notices” − detention requests to the world’s governments – had been issued for all via Interpol. Documents have also been prepared to request that those named in the indictments be handed over to Turkey.
Dr. Tarek Cherkaoui, a manager at the Istanbul–based TRT World Research Centre, told The Media Line that the Turkish government had decided to pursue efforts to prosecute the case through the legal system “to the very end.”
Turkish authorities had “rebuffed multiple Saudi attempts to negotiate a resolution to the case directly or through third parties,” Cherkaoui said, and were refusing to “sweep this affair under the carpet.”
Abdulaziz Alkhamis, a Saudi journalist based in the United Arab Emirates, used the phrase “putting on a show” to describe the move.
“The Saudi position is that the victim was a Saudi citizen; the killing took place in its diplomatic mission; the alleged perpetrators were all Saudi citizens; and trying them in Saudi Arabia, where Khashoggi’s children and ex-wife live, would make the most sense,” Alkhamis told The Media Line in an email.
“The Turkish grievances seem to Saudi Arabia to be posturing rather than coming out of a concern for justice,” he said, adding that Riyadh had “no incentive to cooperate with Turkey on this case, and the motives of the Erdoğan government are constantly questioned.”
According to Cherkaoui, the Turkish leadership “called upon the international community on multiple occasions to bear witness to this vile crime. Therefore, the investigation has followed its ordinary course. It has issued this indictment as per the normal legal procedures in place in Turkey.”
Khashoggi, 59, an author, journalist and commentator who wrote for The Washington Post, was killed after he entered the consulate on October 2, 2018, to obtain paperwork to wed his Turkish fiancée. His body was cut into pieces by a 15-man hit team, Turkish officials say, and his remains have yet to be found.
Turkey carried out its investigation after rejecting Saudi Arabia’s explanations. But Alkhamis questions Ankara’s motives.
“Turkey’s [planned] trial in absentia is mere political posturing designed to show its continuing stance on the Khashoggi incident,” he stated. “Its primary objective is to keep attention on the Khashoggi incident nationally and globally. Turkey clearly understands that some of the suspects have been tried, and some even sentenced to death back in Saudi Arabia.”
Cherkaoui said that although Ankara was furious, it had additional reasons to go ahead with the indictments.
“[There] are legal motives, but also moral and ethical motivations in trying to bring justice for Jamal Khashoggi,” he explained.
“Let us not forget that Khashoggi was killed in a dreadful manner on Turkish soil. He was also about to marry his fiancée, who is a Turkish national. Thus, the gruesome murder and dismemberment… caused anger and consternation among the Turkish public,” he stated.
“Moreover, it is widely believed that the Saudis carried out the assassination as part of a larger policy aiming to discredit Turkey [as standing with] with opposition leaders in Middle Eastern states,” he said.
The horrific killing tarnished MbS’s image as a liberal reformer, resulting in a massive global uproar and criticism of the kingdom, especially from its Western allies.
Cherkaoui said the killing also exposed deep ideological differences between Ankara and Riyadh.
“Riyadh’s new power circles aim to reshape the Saudi state’s identity and replace the ideological dogma of Wahhabism with a new populist and militarized style of Saudi nationalism. In this new situation, the quintessential ‘other,’ the touchstone against which state identity is measured, has become so-called political Islam, which Khashoggi occasionally defended as a possible ally of Saudi policy,” he said.
“Second, and stemming from the first point, in the post-Arab spring era, the Saudis view the preservation of conservative monarchies in their neighbourhood as essential to the regime’s survival. This has led to a policy of zero tolerance for political opposition. Therefore, Riyadh’s high level of intolerance for even mild criticism, combined with Khashoggi’s own intellectual evolution, pushed the latter, who initially supported the regime, to move closer to the Saudi opposition,” he continued.
Alkhamis believes that Turkey’s handling of the Khashoggi case is linked to a diplomatic pivot.
“Ever since Erdoğan came to dominate Turkish politics, Turkish foreign policy has largely ignored Europe in favor of a more hands-on approach in the Middle East. As reflected in Erdoğan’s rhetoric back home, he sought to depict his government as the leader of Islamist movements in the Middle East and North Africa,” the Saudi journalist said.
“This directly conflicts with the Saudis’ hands-off approach in the Middle East,” he noted, “where the internal affairs of Muslim countries are ignored as long as they do not directly affect Saudi Arabia.”
Some Western governments, as well as the CIA and a United Nations investigatory panel, found that the killing had been pre-planned and supported by high-level Saudi officials, an accusation Riyadh has vehemently denied.
Cherkaoui is not convinced that MbS himself wasn’t behind the killing.
“The grisly murder of Khashoggi is an enduring stain on the Saudi regime. Badly advised by poorly qualified sycophants, MbS seems to have calculated that he could eliminate a critic of his regime with total impunity. This proved to be a terrible miscalculation, as it has tarnished not only his reputation, but the reputation of his regime in general,” Cherkaoui said.
The killing badly strained relations between Ankara and Riyadh.
Hassan Awwad, a US-based expert on the Middle East, said the decision to indict the suspects would further aggravate relations between the longstanding Sunni rivals.
“Ankara will not let go of the issue. They feel that their sovereignty was violated and they feel disrespected,” Awwad said, adding that Erdoğan would continue to use the issue to pressure the Saudis.
Alkhamis said there was also the matter of Islamic fundamentalism.
“The breakdown in relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia predates Khashoggi’s murder. Much like [the Saudi dispute] with Qatar, tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia revolve around Erdoğan’s acceptance and promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood in foreign policy and media,” Alkhamis said.
“Since 2014 and the Arab spring, Turkish and Qatar have been increasingly successful at influencing the rebel movements, especially in Egypt and Syria, to be dominated by Islamists, by using their [Turkey’s and Qatar’s] media platforms and selectively funding Islamist groups to gain clout and gain influence with these groups, much like how Iran successfully works to lead many Shi’ite organizations in Lebanon and Iraq,” he said.
The decision to go ahead with the indictment highlights the strain in ties between Ankara and Riyadh. Back in 2017, when Saudi Arabia and three other countries (the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) imposed a tight blockade on Qatar, Turkey was one of the few countries aside from Iran that came to the rescue of Doha. That didn’t sit well with the young and powerful Saudi crown prince.
Riyadh and its allies have accused Doha of supporting Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia views the Brotherhood as an existential threat.
“When Saudi Arabia and some other GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] and Arab nations cut ties with Qatar due to its funding of Islamists, Turkey was the main and most vocal defender of Qatar,” Alkhamis said.
“With Turkish attempts to dictate to Sunni-dominated MENA [Middle Eastern and North African] nations though advisers to Erdoğan from the AKP [his ruling party] who call Saudi Arabia ‘non-Islamic,’ Erdoğan himself publicly challenges Saudi Arabia’s call for moderate Islam…. Turkey is [also] deploying troops to Libya and backing only Islamists in Syria and the Arab world, signaling a ‘neo-Ottoman’ approach to the Middle East,” Alkhamis said.
“In Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, this creates huge unease,” he said.
In December, a Saudi court sentenced five people to death and three to prison over Khashoggi’s murder. But a Saudi prosecutor said there was no evidence connecting Qahtani to the killing, and the court dismissed the charges against Assiri.
Saudi Arabia has not granted Turkish investigators access to the accused and is unlikely to cooperate with any extradition request. The case is also unlikely to come to trial in Turkey, since none of the suspects is in the country and Turkish law demands the presence of the defendants for trial.
Cherkaoui added that no one had faith in the Saudi judicial system.
“Unfortunately, the sham trial that took place in Saudi Arabia only confirmed the worst fears not just of the Turkish authorities, but of the international community. The Saudi trial that took place in December 2019 was a complete miscarriage of justice, with the court exonerating the Saudi crown prince’s inner circle,” he said.
“Furthermore, five of the 11 unidentified men on trial were sentenced to death, and three more were handed a combined 24 years in prison. In the absence of transparency and with the sheer lack of checks and balances within the Saudi legal system, the trial offered the entire world the unique opportunity to witness how a kangaroo court operates,” Cherkaoui said.
The Turkish prosecutor said a trial in absentia would be opened against the 20 Saudi suspects, but that no date has been set.