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Turks Brace For Fallout With Saudi Arabia Over ‘Khashoggi Affair’
A press member takes a photo outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul over the weekend as the waiting continues on news about the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Turks Brace For Fallout With Saudi Arabia Over ‘Khashoggi Affair’

Turkey is facing increased international pressure to allow for an independent investigation into the Saudi journalist’s disappearance

As the leaders of Turkey and Saudi Arabia say they want to cooperate over the case of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who Riyadh now says died in the consulate, people in Turkey say the incident raises fears of a greater diplomatic crisis and threats to the press.

Burhan, a resident of Istanbul who did not want to use his last name told The Media Line that Turkish citizens fear taking on a wealthy, oil-rich country after Ankara had major disputes with Washington and relations with the European Union are fragile.

“People aren’t very eager to have another diplomatic crisis with anyone, especially anyone who’s richer than us,” said Burhan. “They don’t want to see a government who messes these things up… they don’t want a direct fight with Saudi Arabia.”

Turkey’s currency, the lira, lost 40 percent in value against the dollar this summer after the U.S. placed sanctions and increased tariffs on some Turkish metal imports after a Turkish court did not release a U.S. pastor whom Turkey accused of having ties to terrorist organizations. After the pastor’s release earlier this month, the lira made slight gains but the economy is still weak with a 15-year-high inflation rate.

The Khashoggi case has put the country under the international spotlight again. Burhan said that there was rare unity among Turkish citizens and politicians in supporting a competent investigation into the journalist’s disappearance as the world watches.

“I can say that every camp in Turkey, every political group, is happy when Turkish officials find and reveal more information about the case day after day. It’s about confidence I suppose, and they want to see professionals doing this thing.”

Gurkan Ozturan, an executive manager of news website Dokuz8, has been covering the incident from the parliament in Ankara. He told The Media Line that Khashoggi’s disappearance has led to many sleepless nights for him and made journalists in Turkey even more scared.

“They are seeing this as a horrible development because once such a horrible thing happens, things tend to get worse and this kind of behavior spreads. So this episode, I think, is going to repeat itself in other places as well and that is scary… it feels traumatic.”

Ozturan criticized the media in Turkey for not providing insightful coverage of the affair, stating that the Khashoggi case has made it clear what poor state journalism is in when Turkish reporters mostly rely on Western media’s coverage of the affair.

He stated that the response among the Turkish public is a mix. Some are not surprised that a journalist who was critical of the Saudi regime could be severely punished.

“In a sense, some of them are stating that being critical receives the same response anywhere in the world, so they see this as a fit punishment for criticizing the government,” he said.

Ozturan, who regularly covers the parliament, said the opposition has used the case to raise the issue of the lack of press freedoms in the country.

“The opposition is criticizing the Turkish government for not knowing what happened to the journalist and not considering his safety in safety in Turkey. Of course, this adds to the list of terrible, terrible things happening in terms of media and journalism in Turkey.”

Khashoggi felt he was under great pressure in Saudi Arabia as a political commentator soon after the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman assumed power. He subsequently relocated to the U.S. where he was living in self-imposed exile.

Just over two weeks ago, he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain marriage documents while his fiancée waited for him outside. Khashoggi, however, failed to return.

Saudi Arabia initially denied involvement in his disappearance and said he left the consulate alive, but then reversed that claim on Friday, declaring that he died in a fight soon after entering the consulate.

U.S. President Donald Trump called the explanation “credible.” He earlier said Khashoggi may have died at the hands of “rogue killers,” an explanation that relieves the crown prince of any responsibility for the journalist’s death.

Khashoggi’s family has called for an independent, international commission. The U.K., Germany and France echoed that call, saying there must be a “credible investigation” into the writer’s disappearance, putting pressure on Turkey not to simply accept an explanation from Riyadh, thereby allowing both sides to avoid a larger dispute.

Turkey’s next steps could include expelling the Saudi diplomatic mission, recalling the Turkish ambassador, fully cutting diplomatic ties and eventually taking Riyadh to the International Criminal Court.

Relations between the two sides have already been strained. Ankara sided with Qatar during the latter’s crisis with Saudi Arabia, when Riyadh and Saudi Arabia’s allies moved to cut off diplomatic, trade and travel ties with the small Gulf state after alleging that Qatar supported terrorist groups.

Ankara, which maintains a military base in Qatar, sent supplies to the country during the Saudi-led boycott.

But despite these differences, Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and former parliamentarian with the main Turkish opposition party, told The Media Line that Ankara has an interest in maintaining a relationship with Riyadh.

“It is important to remember that intimate ties between Turkey’s Islamist politicians and Riyadh go as far back as the 1960s. The Saudis have also been the leading benefactors of Islamist organizations in Turkey for over 50 years,” Erdemir said.

While the world awaits Turkey’s response to Saudi Arabia’s latest explanation about what happened to Khashoggi, Erdemir believes that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will prioritize politics in his response.

“Erdogan has been and will continue to be measured in his reaction, seeing this as an opportunity to extract financial and diplomatic concessions from Saudi Arabia,” Erdemir concluded.

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