While Saudi Arabia has admitted that Turkish officials were accurate in accusing Riyadh of orchestrating and carrying out the brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and while Turkey has said that the order to kill Khashoggi came from the “highest levels” of the Saudi state, Turkey has explicitly ruled out any involvement from King Salman while Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has not been directly accused by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of being complicit in the murder. That being said, numerous journalists and other experts from Turkey and throughout the world have in fact accused the Saudi Crown Prince of orchestrating the Khashoggi murder. This is why it has come as a shock to some that Turkish officials have stated that it is entirely possible that when both men are at next week’s G20 summit in Argentina, the Turkish President may in fact hold a private meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince that many of Erdogan’s supporters believe has the blood of Jamal Khashoggi on his hands.
In a year in which Kim Jong-un met with Donald Trump, it goes without saying that anything is possible when it comes to unexpected political summits or sideline meetings. According to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu:
“There is no reason why President Erdoğan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed would not meet at G20 summit in Argentina, Erdoğan will decide”.
Should the meeting take place, it would be indicative that Turkey’s President feels satisfied that Mohammad bin Salman was not directly (key word) responsible for Khashoggi’s death although Ankara has already alluded to the fact that the Saudi Crown Prince bears a measure of responsibility for the crime. Such statements will almost certainly not be walked back even after a bilateral meeting. Instead, the meeting will be about Saudi Arabia making a broad range of immediately tangible as well as broader and more metaphysical concessions to Turkey in exchange for reaching a professional diplomatic understanding on how to take the murder investigation forward in a manner that is as forensic as that which Turkey has demanded from the beginning – even as Saudi Arabia refused to initially cooperate.
Fundamentally, Donald Trump’s recent statements regarding the Khashoggi murder indicate that the US President is prepared to act as Mohammad bin Salman’s insurance policy against all those who might wish to replace him as the successor to the throne. Because of this, however much some in Turkey might want a more neutral figure in charge of Riyadh’s future, such a change is not likely to happen without White House approval.
Yet even if Mohammad bin Salman retains his political power as he is likely to do, he is clearly a damaged figure in the eyes of much of the Ummah (global Islamic community) – particularly in the Middle East (far less so in South Asia). Even before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia under the de-facto rule of Mohammad bin Salman was perceived by many as losing some of its erstwhile influence over Middle Eastern affairs. The combination of Riyadh’s silence in the face of Israeli aggression towards Palestine combined with Riyadh’s failure to bring about regime change in Syria or subdue the Houthi rebellion in Yemen have all tarnished the Saudi crown from multiple perspectives (among both former friends, current well wishers and rivals).
By contrast, Turkey’s regional position has been elevated throughout the region and wider world due to President Erdogan’s vocal support for Palestine while the fact that no element of the Syrian peace process can move forward without Turkey’s involvement or approval speaks for itself. In many ways, Mohammad bin Salman is as much the author of Saudi’s failures as he is paradoxically the beneficiary of them. As Mohammad bin Salman has set himself on a course for economic, political and social reform of Saudi Arabia, such things are clearly more easily achieved if Riyadh is less dramatically involved in foreign affairs. Therefore, the fact that Saudi Arabia has lost the emotional support of many Palestinians, has lost its portion of the war in Syria and continues to be trapped in a stalemate against poorly armed Houthi rebels in Yemen, might actually grant Mohammad bin Salman the opportunity to re-focus his political energies on internal matters which have always been his comparative strength in any case (however one might disagree with or even be horrified by his methods).
By contrast, Turkey’s economic model of openness and connectivity means that Anakra’s role in foreign affairs has necessarily increased as Turkey looks to build new partnerships across Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and perhaps most importantly in south east Asia. While Mohammad bin Salman’s “reformist” Saudi Arabia wants to import expertise form places like China and Russia in order to diversify the nation’s petro-economy, Turkey’s growing and diversifying economy is equally ready, willing and able to export expertise and goods as it as to import them on the win-win model that President Erdogan has openly embraced.
While Donald Trump campaigned for the US Presidency using the Rolling Stones song You Can’t Always Get What You Want, when it comes to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, in an odd way the two rivals may indeed both get what they want. From Turkey’s perspective, President Erdogan has already excelled as a torchbearer for modern progressive Islamic values among the region and the wider Ummah and Turkey’s professional handling of the Khashoggi murder has only bolstered Turkey’s prestige in the eyes of millions. While few outside of Saudi Arabia find Mohammad bin Salman inspirational, President Erdogan remains admired throughout much of the Muslim world including in immigrant communities throughout Europe, North America and Oceania. Yet with Donald Trump publicly declaring that Saudi Arabia is helping to insure Israel’s survival, there is not much Saudi Arabia can do to resurrect its desired image other than to quietly retreat into a more domestically and economically driven mindset that forgoes the regional political influence it has already lost to Turkey.
With this in mind, when and if Erdogan and Mohammad bin Salman meet it will be less of a passing of the torch than a confirmation that the touch has long ago been passed. In exchange for Turkey not demanding the removal of the controversial Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia will effectively have to stand down in the region and abandon the broad ambitions that Riyadh once had in respect of being a leading military and diplomatic power in western Eurasia.
While the deal might sound embarrassing for Riyadh on paper, in reality it is just a factual representation of a reality that existed even while Jamal Khashoggi was alive and well. Today, Khashoggi is dead and Saudi Arabia’s regional standing isn’t far behind. In order for Saudi Arabia to re-focus its energies on internal matters, a handshake with President Erdogan may be required to seal a deal like gentleman – something which is a greater privilege than the Saudi state ever offered Jamal Khashoggi.