Not since the days following 9/11 has the Saudi image taken such a severe beating.
The murder of one-time Saudi regime insider and columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul has become riveting for many reasons. The mysterious circumstances around Khashoggi’s death inside the Saudi consulate, the gruesome manner in which he was done away with, the place where it all happened, and the key players in the aftermath and their potential fates are playing out in international affairs over the past two weeks. Added to these ingredients is the masterfully tantalising manner in which the Turkish government has played the narrative.
Khashoggi’s murder may have started out as an extraordinarily miscalculated external move in Saudi domestic politics, but has already become – if Turkey’s president has his way – a pivotal moment, both in the regional tussle for dominance and the global play for leadership of the Islamic world.
We usually like stories with a good guy victim, a bad guy perpetrator, conflicted bystanders and dispassionate deliverers of justice. The media likes to present us such stories. Reality tends to be a lot more complex and oblivious to the glazing-over point of the eyes of television viewers. So is it here.
Now, Khashoggi was indeed a critic of the current Saudi leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (popularly known as MBS), but for long years enjoyed the patronage of Turki bin Faisal, the Kingdom’s intelligence chief and one of the key promoters of Osama bin Laden in the 1990s.
He might well have been a dissident in the sense that he opposed the men in power at the moment, but unless he underwent a major change of heart in the past year, he’s not the righteous liberal fighting injustice. All this, however, doesn’t mean his death ought to be less lamented. It is only to put his life in perspective.
Soon after Khashoggi disappeared, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, said that “it is very, very upsetting for us that it happened in our country”. Since then, he has been on the front foot and not allowed the matter to drop despite at least three (Saudi) face-saving cover stories being put out. Not since the days following 9/11 has the Saudi image taken such a severe beating.
But surely, if Saudi government abducted or murdered someone on Turkish soil, Erdogan has reasons to be upset.
Well. Erdogan is the same person who declared, “No matter where they run or how much they run, we will go after them”. He was referring to Turkish dissidents who’d taken refuge abroad. Earlier this year, Bekir Bozdağ, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, told a news outlet that their intelligence agencies had “bundled up and brought back” at least 80 suspects from 18 countries as part of international covert operations against Erdogan’s political adversaries.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Turkish representatives offered an alleged $15 million to Michael Flynn, a US general working on Donald Trump’s transition team, to abduct Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric who is in Erdogan’s crosshairs, from the United States.
Clearly, this business of abducting inconvenient people from abroad is wrong. But who can you call upon to intercede? Three of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members are into the same game. China under Xi Jinping has abducted everyone, from a bookseller to an Interpol chief. Putin’s Russia saves money on a return ticket through clever use of chemistry. It’s hard for the United States to take a stronger position against international abductions because it was the Americans who made “extraordinary rendition” a thing. Yes, there’s a moral difference between abducting a foreign terrorist and a mere political opponent, but once you muddy the pond, people with dirtier hands will wash in it too.
President Donald Trump needs a story that simultaneously absolves the Saudi crown prince and is also presidentially believable. As the President of the United States, it is perhaps an unwritten qualification that you must have an extraordinarily stretched capability to believe. Remember, Reagan and Clinton believed that the Pakistanis were not making nuclear weapons and the junior Bush believed that the Saudis had nothing to do with al-Qaeda. The problem is that President Trump can’t believe in a story that President Erdogan says he doesn’t.
That leaves the Turkish president in control of developments. In fact, the manner in which Turkish authorities have calibrated the release of information is clearly calculated to cause maximum pain to Saudi Arabia in general and the crown prince in particular. In normal circumstances, quiet diplomacy at the highest levels, sealing some quid pro quo, would have put an end to the matter. The Saudis would have been given a face-saving exit, while the Turks would have gained something substantial in return.
Thus far, at least, Erdogan seems to be in no mood to settle for something like this.
Why not? Because he has perhaps calculated that he has an unprecedented opportunity to both discredit the Saudi monarchy in the eyes of the world and throw the kingdom into internal disarray. This could not only make Turkey the pre-eminent Sunni power in the Middle East (with the ability to prevail in the numerous proxy wars in the region), but also bolster its claim to the mantle of the leadership of the entire Islamic world.
Almost 500 years ago, Ottoman sultan Selim, the Grim, conquered the Mamluk sultanate that ruled over Arabia, and in the process captured the Abbasid caliph who was held as a puppet in Cairo. Selim’s move made the Ottoman the dominant power in the region and his successors the caliphs of the world’s Muslims. Erdogan is no doubt conscious of this history and thus may be tempted to give the screw a few more turns.
Erdogan has promised to reveal the “naked truth” today. Things can get a lot more complicated.
Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.
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