While the fall out from the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues to unfold, the geopolitical implications stemming from the international outcry over Khashoggi’s murder are now increasing solidified. Here are the important changes that have developed in the aftermath of Ryadh taking public responsibility for the journalist’s demise.
Turkey is the undisputed leader of the Ummah
Long before the Khashoggi murder, a Republic of Turkey led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was already the prime mover of opinion throughout most of the Ummah (the international Muslim community). Among the world’s majority of Sunni Muslims from Africa to south east Asia and increasingly throughout the Arab world, Erdogan’s frequent statements about Islam’s role in modern politics as well as frequent refrains regarding the moral duties of Muslims throughout the world to come together over issues like Palestine, all tended to dwarf statements from Saudi Arabia that increasingly had little to do with politics, little to do with an intellectual approach to religion and hardly anything to do with Palestine.
The Khashoggi murder merely solidified these realities as under President Erdogan’s rule, Turkey has stepped back into its role as the leading state in forming a political consensus in the wider Islamic world just as had been the case during the Ottoman period.
By contrast, Saudi Arabia has dropped much of its own anti-Turkish narrative and is instead now engaging in severe damage control against a public opinion backlash from much of the world including and especially from a highly influential Turkey. President Erdogan is of course not yet done with demanding more transparency from Riyadh. Just today he asked Saudi officials to either extract confessions from the eighteen suspects currently being held over the Khashoggi murder or else extradite them to Turkey where they would be given a murder trial. Erdogan has also demanded that Riyadh work with Ankara to find the dead body. Erdogan then directly addressed the Saudi leadership during his speech by saying the following:
“If you want to eliminate the suspicion the key question is these 18 people. If you cannot make them talk then hand them over to us. This incident happened in Istanbul. Let us put them on trial”.
Taken in totality, Saudi Arabia can no longer credibly present itself to the world as a rival of Turkey. Riyadh’s policy makers up to and including Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman now appear to realise this as they are no longer contradicting Turkish findings in the Khashoggi investigation.
Saudi Arabia’s links with terror will be more heavily scrutinised due to Turkish pressure
There is however a further element implicit in Saudi Arabia’s admission of defeat to Turkey in the “war for truth” over Khashoggi’s murder that is less self-evident than Turkey’s moral and geopolitical victory. If Saudi officials become increasingly cooperative towards Turkey in private and increasingly contrite in public as the Crown Prince was this week, Turkey has the opportunity to calmly but firmly demand that in the wake of losing so much regional credibility, Riyadh must disclose to Turkey any and all connections Riyadh maintains with anti-Turkish terror groups. As recent reports indicated that Saudi Arabia might fund, arm or even send troops to fight with the YPG/PKK terror group in north eastern Syria, it is now clear that Saudi Arabia would pay a severe price if this were to happen.
With President Erdogan issuing the world a “final warning” before Turkish troops will neutralise YPG/PKK terrorists in Syria east of the River Euphrates, such a statement was direct to any nation considering forming a relationship with the terror group. As Saudi Arabia had hinted at doing so in the recent past, Erdogan’s words were clearly meant for Saudi Arabia as much as his wayward American NATO partner
One of the main areas over which Turkey and Saudi Arabia had severe disagreements while Jamal Khashoggi was still alive revolved around relations with Qatar. Saudi Arabia continues to lead a boycott of the small Arab state while Turkey has sent troops to Qatar as a means of warding off the Saudi aggression that Riyadh has regularly threatened.
This week however, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman made a statement which appeared to praise Qatar’s economic potential “in spite of our differences”. While Turkey has been a loyal ally of Qatar throughout the current Saudi led boycott, Turkey may well be in a position along with other partners to foster a detente between Riyadh and Doha.
China and Russia
It did not take long for the fall out from the Khashoggi murder to work in China and Russia’s mutual favour. This week it was announced that the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) will invest half a billion Dollars into the Russia-China Investment Fund (RCIF). According to an official statement fro Moscow,
“The agreement sets out that PIF will contribute $500 million to RCIF. Thus, RCIF will have a total of $2.5 billion of capital under management (of which RDIF and China Investment Corporation contributed $1 billion each). The agreement creates a trilateral Russian-Chinese-Saudi investment fund”.
Thus, one sees that while under Mohammad bin Salman’s de-facto rule, Riyadh was already attempting to diversify its economic outlook by forming closer ties with the two Asian superpowers, after a barrage of businessmen and politicians from the EU and North America took delight in heaping scorn on Saudi Arabia, Riyadh’s pivot towards China and Russia in the fields of business dealings became that much stronger and that much more irreversible.
While the idea that Saudi Arabia might form a more strategic security partnership with Russia let along China remains somewhat remote from reality, when it comes to resurrecting Mohammad bin Salman’s ambitious ‘Vision 2030’ programme for economic, infrastructural and industrial reform, China and Russia are clearly Riyadh’s most important partners. The western reactions to the Khashoggi murder make this all the more clear.
Furthermore, Russia in particular is now in a healthy position to work with Turkey to mediate not only in the Qatari boycott, but to also work with other international partners to bring about a meaningful ceasefire to the war in Yemen.
Pakistan’s neutrality over the Khashoggi murder thanks to Imran Khan’s focus on putting the needs of Pakistanis above the temptation to comment on matters remote to Pakistan has already led to Riyadh loaning $3 billion to Pakistan while a total of $6 billion has been offered as Riyadh has furthermore agreed to defer $3 billion worth of Pakistan’s payments for oil for a year.
This comes after Riyadh pledged to invest $10 billion into the development of an oil refinery in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar. As Gwadar is the southern most terminus of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) the move was welcomed by Beijing while for Saudi Arabia, Pakistan serves as a crucial gateway linking the Arab kingdom to the Belt and Road initiative.
Pakistan is a nation whose people have a long standing relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Turkey to the west as well as China to the east. As such, Pakistan has no need to take sides in any disputes which may on occasion arise between its other partners. This is likewise why Pakistan did not take sides over the Qatar boycott while Pakistan’s non-participation in the war in Yemen has now led Imran Khan to state that Pakistan is ready, willing and able to work with other partners to mediate in the conflict in order to achieve a cessation of violence.
In this sense, Pakistan can now lend credibility in the Ummah to Saudi Arabia’s falling public relations star as Imran Khan’s image as an optimistic leader of one of the world’s largest Muslim nations is one that Riyadh could benefit from by association. In this sense, while Pakistan has often been thought of as the junior partner in its relations with Riyadh, the truth of the matter is very different in the age of Naya Pakistan (new Pakistan). Although Pakistan remains in need of cash from nations like Saudi Arabia, when it comes to Belt and Road connectivity, sizeable investment opportunities that will help Saudi Arabia to diversify its economy and rebuilding the Saudi public image through a positive association with Imran Khan, in many ways the Pakistan of 2018 has more to offer Riyadh than Riyadh has to offer Islamabad.
Israel and Iran
While the anti-Iranian trifecta of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia remains intact, America’s wider moves to create a so-called ‘Arab NATO’ for the purposes of intimidating Iran seems to have largely fallen apart. The Khashoggi Murder has clearly weakened Saudi Arabia’s ability to convincingly spread the anti-Iranian narrative throughout the region not least because Turkey and Iran are becoming ever closer partners while Arab states as diverse as Qatar, Lebanon and Syria will not be ruled by anti-Iranian factions anytime soon.
The fact that Saudi Arabia’s most prominent anti-Iranian partner is now the rogue Iraqi Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr says quite a lot about how weak a Riyadh led “Arab NATO” is. As recently as three years ago, Riyadh sought to install anti-Iranian factions in Qatar, Syria and Lebanon while relying on Egypt’s army to bolster such an alliance. Today, while Egypt remains a Saudi ally, the idea that Egypt’s army which has a domestic war on terror on its hands, would somehow help Saudi Arabia fight Iran was and remains fanciful, while the northern half of the Middle East is either pro-Iranian or neutral on the matter with the possible exception of a weak Iraqi government led by the infamous political chameleon al-Sadr.
Because of this, if Israel and the US want to fight Iran, they’ll have to do so alone not least because China, Russia, Turkey and all of Europe is deadset against any military action against Tehran.