Khashoggi is being used as a bargaining chip in Turkey’s negotiations

Khashoggi is being used as a bargaining chip in Turkey's negotiations

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, acting as though he were not responsible for the fact that the country he rules has the highest number of imprisoned journalists, is now trying to present himself as a fervent defender of freedom of expression. Photo taken at an official graduation ceremony in Ankara, 26 October 2018.

(AP/Presidency Press Service)

For some time now, brutality and contempt for the most fundamental legal standards have become normal behaviour in the international community. To mention but a few of the most notable examples, Washington has inured us to extrajudicial executions, Moscow to the assassination of dissidents and critics, Beijing to the purging of dissidents and the forced re-education of troublesome minorities and – while this is by no means the full list of offenders - the European Union has failed to help the desperate people drowning in the Mediterranean in their attempts to reach its territory.

That is why, sadly, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi caused no great surprise, particularly as it was at the hands of a regime like the Saudis, responsible for 150 executions a year of people condemned to death in trials barely worthy of the name, for the promotion of Islamic radicalism and jihadist violence in several parts of the world, for denying the rights of its own population (especially women) and for the war crimes it commits daily in Yemen.

It almost comes as a shock that on this occasion there has been an international outcry, as if the murder of Khashoggi had disclosed some hitherto unknown trait of the House of Saud. A Satrap regime so used to getting its own way with no significant consequences – beyond the usual formalistic expressions of those who claim to be “deeply concerned” – that it is not surprising that it has lost sight of any limits on how it should exercise its power. In reality, if it were not for the fact that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saw this terrible episode as an unexpected opportunity to try and turn around a doubly pernicious dynamic – both with Riyadh and Washington – the disappearance of the critical Saudi journalist would barely have received more attention than the many others who preceded him.

Erdoğan, acting as if he were not responsible for the fact that Turkey, the country he rules, has the highest number of imprisoned journalists, is now trying to present himself as a fervent defender of freedom of expression and, with a carefully calculated leak of information about what might have happened at the Saudi Arabia consulate on 2 October 2018 and about who was ultimately responsible for the murder of Khashoggi, has decided to play hardball.

His whole strategy is based on making others believe, without ever naming him directly, that he has sufficient information to incriminate Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) himself, the Saudi prince and heir.

Erdoğan aspires to be the leader of Sunni Islam, in clear competition with Riyadh. This rivalry dates back centuries and Riyadh appears to have had the advantage for the last few decades (particularly since it established strong links with Washington 75 years ago, links which still endure today), although we should not forget that at least twice in the 19th century the Saudi monarchy had to bow to the Turks (and one lost his head). All the signs are that, at least for now, Erdoğan does not want to break his ties with Riyadh (hence his subtle ploy of praising King Salman while pointing to his son) given that the Saudis are important clients of and investors in the beleaguered Turkish economy. But right now he is using the information he has to make Riyadh not only lose credibility in the eyes of the world in the struggle to lead Sunni Islam, but also to end up paying – be it in the form of investments, donations or any other form of support that helps Ankara out of the crisis – in exchange for stopping it from spreading any further information that could ruin the succession plans of MbS and plunge the Saudi monarchy into a colossal crisis.

Bargaining chip or bluff?

At the same time it is obvious that Erdoğan is trying to score points with Washington using the same card. To the extent that the fall of MbS would be a major setback for the Trump administration’s plans to secure a designated partner to maintain the stability of the Middle East (and facilitate the funds with which it intends to ‘buy’ the Palestinian acceptance of its still undisclosed peace plan with Israel), Ankara intends to make a profit in exchange for its discretion about what it is supposed to know about Khashoggi’s death.

The list of demands that Ankara hopes to raise with Washington could cover anything from stronger support from the IMF to ease its economic problems to the handing over of Fetulah Gülen, described by Ankara as the principal protagonist of the failed coup of June 2016, not forgetting the ending or at least reduction of US support for the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish militias which Turkey describes as terrorist groups.

But that same gambit could backfire painfully if Erdoğan overplays his demands or, above all, if it finally turns out that it is all a bluff and that he has no more information that has been revealed so far to incriminate the Saudi heir. In this case neither Riyadh nor Washington will hesitate to do everything possible to make Erdoğan pay heavily for the difficulties he is now going through. It is reasonable to suppose that it is precisely to clarify this uncertainty that the Director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, has gone to Turkey. Her conclusions will have a decisive impact on whether Washington and Riyadh comply with Erdogan’s demands, or whether everything reverts to form: the usual formalistic condemnations as high-sounding as they are innocuous, and the usual requisite resignations decreed by Riyadh, leaving MbS unharmed.

As far as the Saudi regime itself is concerned, it is enough to point out that the monarch has decided to carry out a reform of the kingdom’s intelligence and security services, creating a commission in charge of which it has placed ... MbS. A clear enough sign that the House of the Saud remains firmly convinced that the foundations of its power are not in danger and that, once the current media and political storm has subsided, everything will return to normal. We shall see.

This article has been translated from Spanish.