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The diplomatic games overshadowing Khashoggi’s murder investigation

An outside view of Consulate General of Saudi Arabia as the waiting continues on the disappearance of Prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul, Turkey on 18 October 2018 [Elif Öztürk/Anadolu Agency]
An outside view of Consulate General of Saudi Arabia as the waiting continues on the disappearance of Prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul, Turkey on 18 October 2018 [Elif Öztürk/Anadolu Agency]

More than three weeks after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the criminal enquiry into his grisly death has been superseded by a complex set of diplomatic manoeuvrings involving several powerful states.  

At the heart of the dispute are Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with the former appearing to be seeking a wide range of diplomatic concessions from the latter. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are locked into a major political and strategic dispute – namely Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its alliance with Qatar, which is being blockaded by a Saudi-led coalition.

At minimum, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants some concessions from Riyadh on these issues, in addition to enlisting a degree of Saudi support for Turkey’s military, political and diplomatic initiatives in Syria.

The United States also has a major diplomatic and economic stake in the developing issue, above all a deeply-entrenched interest in maintaining the stability of the Saudi royal family. The Trump Administration, and to a lesser extent the US diplomatic and intelligence community, are loath to see Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) weakened, let alone ousted, as a result of the fallout of the Khashoggi murder.

Read: Bin Salman is a ‘crazy thug’ who ordered Khashoggi’s murder

Beyond the three central players, at least another three states are watching the unfolding drama very carefully. Iran, Russia and Israel all have stakes in the diplomatic manoeuvrings following Khashoggi’s murder. While Israel, like Saudi Arabia, stands to lose from the impending diplomatic and strategic ramifications, by contrast Iran and Russia can potentially boost their regional geopolitical profile.

Ankara versus Riyadh

In this excellent article, Oxford University historian Faisal Devji sets out the bigger foundational and ideological issues underpinning the spat between Ankara and Riyadh. This analysis is a welcome departure from the voluminous material in the international media focussing on the immediate diplomatic gains and losses flowing from Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

Turkish President Erdogan has demonstrated leadership by expertly managing all the aspects of this gruesome and highly-unusual case. Despite possessing damning evidence pointing to clear Saudi culpability – and more importantly information which ties the highest echelons of the Saudi royal family to the murder – Erdogan has so far refrained from publicly attributing blame.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan [Kayhan Özer/Anadolu Agency]

President Erdogan’s statesmanlike behaviour stands in sharp contrast to how other leaders have reacted in the face of politically-motivated killings aimed at undermining their national sovereignty. The most recent example of this was the attempted assassination of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, UK, earlier this year. In the aftermath of that attempted assassination by suspected Russian agents, the UK establishment immediately pointed the finger of blame at Russian leaders and proceeded to mobilise the entire Western alliance to take punitive diplomatic measures against Russia.

Read: Trump says Saudis staged ‘worst cover-up ever’ on Khashoggi; US revokes visas of some Saudis 

The fact that the same Western alliance is now reluctant to take serious measures against Saudi Arabia – despite the fact that Jamal’s “ferocious” murder was graver in both concept and execution than the assassination attempt on the Skripals – speaks to the perennial problem of hypocrisy and double-standards in international relations.

Erdogan’s demonstration of leadership and implicit focus on foundational values and norms also stands in stark contrast to the parochial economic and transactional concerns of the Trump Administration. Indeed, the US administration’s primary concern in this whole affair appears to be centred on damage limitation, notably the preservation of a lucrative arms deal and a barely-concealed desire to extract even more financial concessions from the Saudis.

Wider diplomacy

In terms of the wider ramifications of Khashoggi’s murder, the most significant development is Russia’s opportunistic exploitation of the issue. As many countries and companies boycotted the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh, the Russians decided to send a large delegation of chief executives to the highly controversial conference.

In this instance, the Russians have behaved predictably and entirely in keeping with their stated goal of re-establishing Moscow’s Great Power status in the Middle East. To achieve this goal, Russia needs to stay on good terms with the region’s key powers, including Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

More broadly, the Israelis have generally interpreted the Khashoggi murder as inimical to their core interests, as the killing weakens Saudi Arabia politically and diplomatically and by extension potentially strengthens Iran’s diplomatic hand.

#JamalKhashoggi 

For their part the Iranians were initially silent on the diplomatic crisis engulfing their arch-rival Saudi Arabia, before President Hassan Rouhani set out the official position by not only condemning the murder but, more importantly, implicating the United States in the outrage.

The developing Iranian strategy – one that appears to be favoured by both diplomats and experts – is centred on imposing costs on Saudi Arabia and the United States with a view to undermining the Trump Administration’s alliance with Bin Salman. The alliance with MBS and his clique is central to Trump’s stated goal of maintaining maximum economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran following the imposition of even more sanctions early next month.

In the midst of these complex diplomatic developments, it is worth remembering that Turkey is the only power with the authority to establish the full facts surrounding Khashoggi’s murder. While President Erdogan is understandably engaged in all aspects of this case, it would be disappointing to say the least if he prioritised diplomatic and political gains at the expense of justice.                 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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