- Turkey has challenged Saudi Arabia’s account of Jamal Khashoggi’s killing for weeks through intelligence leaks and bold public statements.
- But the two countries put on a united front this week.
- Saudi Arabia has been trying to distance its leadership from the case, and Turkey this week appeared to follow this narrative.
- Ankara and Riyadh’s sharing the same playbook could absolve the Saudi crown prince from blame.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia appear to be sharing the same narrative on Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, a playbook which could pave the way for the Saudi crown prince to walk away from the crisis unscathed.
Saudi officials have been focused on distancing its leadership from Khashoggi’s death and combatting claims that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the operation.
Their main opponents had been Turkish officials, who challenged the Saudi account of Khashoggi’s killing for weeks through intelligence leaks and bold public statements. Khashoggi was a Saudi national who died inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
But this week, the tone changed. Turkish and Saudi leaders closed ranks, touted their close relationship, and led many to believe they are now cooperating on the matter.
It is impossible to know exactly what these leaders are thinking, and whether they are coordinating. But their behavior over the past week suggests, at the very least, a decision to go easy on one another.
The two countries have been running separate investigations into the killing. They first produced contradictory accounts of what happened, with Riyadh claiming that the journalist left the consulate alive, while the Turkish side asserted that he had died.
Reading the runes from Riyadh
Riyadh on Thursday took a step towards harmonizing its account with Ankara’s. In a statement from its top prosecutors, the kingdom said Khashoggi’s death appeared to be preplanned, and even went as far as name-checking the Turkish investigation.
The kingdom had acknowledged the death already, but initially claimed it was an accident, carried out by rogue agents. It added that it arrested 18 people, bolstering their claim that that killing was unauthorized, and warrants punishment.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, spent the week ramping up pressure on the culprits, but by shifting his rhetoric appeared to let the Saudi leadership off the hook.
On Tuesday Erdogan said he and Saudi King Salman discussed sharing intelligence on the death, another point of harmony between the nations. It also suggests that Erdogan does not suspect the Saudi monarchy personally.
He also steered clear of mentioning an alleged audio recording that Turkish officials claim to have of Khashoggi’s reportedly brutal death. Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf State Institute, said that if the recording exists it would be “Turkey’s ace in the hole.”
Other parties, including the US, have also not acknowledged the alleged recording, or published it, even though CIA Director Gina Haspel reportedly heard it this week.
On Friday Erdogan also made a public show of faith in Crown Prince Mohammed. According to Reuters he said he “told the crown prince” to find the 18 people behind the death – suggesting that he trusts his counterpart to deliver.
Erdogan also claimed to have more evidence from the killing, Reuters said, but added that he would not be “too hasty” in releasing it.
The less evidence that is public from the killing, the easier it will be for all sides to walk away with the current order more or less intact.
Crown Prince Mohammed chimed in too, claimed unity with Turkey in a major speech on Wednesday. Like Erdogan, he turned his ire off-stage, attacking unnamed critics instead.
In a rhetorical crescendo, to lengthy applause, he said: “Many are trying to use this painful thing to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
“I want to send them a message: They will not be able to do that as long as there is a king called Salman bin Abdulaziz, and a crown prince called Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and a president in Turkey called Erdogan.
Ibish, the Arab Gulf scholar, tweeted on Thursday: “Either Turkey & Saudi Arabia have done a deal, or Riyadh is trying to convince everyone that they have done a deal.”
The crown prince’s way out?
If Turkey – the strongest voice in this investigation – continues not to implicate the Saudi leadership in its investigation, Saudi’s crown prince could walk away from this crisis without censure.
The US – where Khashoggi lived before his death – and other countries have expressed concern about the crisis, but have stopped short of pointing fingers at the Saudi leadership.
President Donald Trump called Riyadh’s reaction to Khashoggi’s death “one of the worst in the history of cover-ups,” but repeatedly refused to directly blame the Saudi leadership or cancel arms sales to the kingdom.
Indeed, he went as far as saying he “would love if he wasn’t responsible,” referring to Crown Prince Mohammed.
Legal experts said that Khashoggi’s killing could lead to charges against Crown Prince Mohammed under international law, but that it wouldn’t happen without the the Saudis’ express approval.
The global community could place “some political and financial pressure for a few years,” national security lawyer Bradley P. Moss told Business Insider this week, adding: “That is likely to be the extent of what occurs though.”
- Osman Orsal/Reuters