Turkey's trump card against Saudi Arabia

TURKhashoggi2018ISTANBUL – Until a few days ago, Hadice Cengiz was hopeful that Turkish authorities would find her fiancé Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who has sparked an international crisis since disappearing after entering the Saudi consulate earlier this month.

“I will not believe he is dead till I get official confirmation from the government, keep us in your prayers,” said Cengiz, a Turkish PhD candidate in Islamic history at Sabahettin Zaim University in Istanbul, on Twitter.

But after forensic investigators took away soil samples from the consulate’s inner courtyard and detectives removed a metal door leading to the manicured garden on Tuesday, Hadice took to social media in a fiery recitation of a Quran verse promising divine retribution for murderers of devout Muslims.

“Whoever kills a believer intentionally - his recompense will be Hell,” Hadice tweeted. “Allah has become angry, cursed him and has prepared for him a great punishment.”

Her anger captured the mood in Turkey towards the Middle Eastern kingdom at this moment.

In recent years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has clashed with Saudi leaders over a host of issues including the best way to handle the Syria crisis and advance Palestinian independence. Turks and Saudis have also differed over Qatar’s role in supporting militant groups in the Persian Gulf and beyond, the future of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and strategies to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

On his home turf, where he rules with near-absolute power, Erdogan didn’t hold back after demanding that Turkish police examine the consulate for signs of a suspected murder.

“The investigation is looking into many things such as toxic materials and the possibility of those materials being removed by painting them over,” Erdogan told reporters at the parliament in Ankara on Tuesday, indicating that detectives found signs of tampering at the crime scene.

Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen who has been highly critical of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz’ abysmal civil rights record in his Washington Post columns and elsewhere. An American resident, he went to the consulate to obtain divorce papers so he could marry Cengiz. Off the record, Turkish officials have said the Saudis murdered Khashoggi, cut him into pieces and spirited them out of the consulate.

Erdogan spoke to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz on Sunday to hammer out terms for a "working group" to investigate the Khashoggi case. But Erdogan’s proposal has yet to elicit an official response from Riyadh other than denials and charges of a media campaign against monarchy.

With all signs pointing to a targeted assassination in the heart of Turkey’s biggest city, the Khashoggi affair dominates conversations in coffee shops, cafes and parks.

“He was the only Saudi journalist to criticize the kingdom’s regime in one of the West’s biggest newspapers,” said Esraa Al-Shaikh, a Palestinian TV presenter at the pan-Arab channel Al-Hiwar’s Istanbul bureau as she stood vigil outside the Saudi consulate in the tony Besiktas district on the European side of the Bosphorus. “This is frightening to all of us since Jamal was a moderate, honest and realistic person, careful in his criticism.”

Ironically, Reporters Without Borders calls Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists.” The nation has slipped steadily in the World Press Freedom Index since Erdogan’s election to the presidency in 2014 and the attempted coup in 2016. Turkey now stands at 157 in the World Press Freedom Index. But it still it ranks 12 places ahead of Saudi Arabia, which has the score of 169 out of 180.

“In Muslim traditions, messengers are supposed to have immunity even in the times of war,” said Hussam Botani, chief analyst at the Son’i El-Siyasat Center for International and Strategic Studies in Istanbul. “Journalists are the modern-day messengers and the Saudis seem to have forgotten that we are in the age of globalization where human rights is a priority.”

With Turkish officials tying members of the hit squad directly to the circle around Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it will be increasingly difficult for Riyadh to attribute the alleged Khashoggi murder to “rogue elements” or claim it was an interrogation that went sideways.

“Security agencies have (linked) the crime to (diplomat) Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, who often goes on trips with Mohammed bin Salman,” said Botani, who added that the uproar in America put further pressure on the crown prince.

Meanwhile, the sovereignty issue is most rankling Turkish opinion leaders.

“Turkey wants good relations with Saudi Arabia but this does not mean Turkey will allow Saudis insulting its security, committing crimes in their country’s consulate at midday,” said Hamza Tekin, a Turkish analyst close to Erdogan administration. “Ankara is insisting on finding out who the criminals are, however high their rank might be."

Yet as outraged as Ankara might be about a foreign hit squad operating in Istanbul, diplomatic observers cautioned President Erdogan about putting Turkey’s position as the seventh-largest exporter of goods to Saudi at risk at a time when the Turkish economy is unstable.

“We should err on the side of caution,” said Yasin Aktay, an Istanbul columnist who is known as a frequent informal advisor to the Turkish leader. “There is no point in raging against Saudi Arabia because of Khashoggi’s disappearance in the consulate. Expecting the Saudi authorities to provide answers does not necessarily mean you have to become an enemy of Saudi Arabia.”

Photo: Screenshot of slained Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during an interview with Egyptian TV.
Credit: Courtesy of American Moussa Twitter page (10/16/18)

Story/photo published date: 10/18/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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