What Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan left out of his speech on the Khashoggi case is just as vital as what was in the speech.

Speaking before a gathering of Justice and Development Party (AKP) lawmakers in Ankara on October 23, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a key speech about the Jamal Khashoggi case. 

In doing so, Erdogan provided the world with the first official Turkish account of the timeline of the Saudi journalist’s “premeditated”, “savage”, and “political” murder. 

Although leaving some of the “naked truth” to be exposed later while corroborating much of what the public already knew, Erdogan asserted that the Saudi consulate’s surveillance camera system had its hard drives removed before Khashoggi’s arrival and that a group of Saudis travelled to the Belgrad forest in Istanbul and Yalova on October 1 - presumably on a reconnaissance mission.

Ultimately, Erdogan’s speech marked a comprehensive rebuke of the Saudi narrative of a “terrible tragedy”, “grave mistake”, and “fist fight” with “rogue” elements of Saudi Arabia’s security apparatus acting independently from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). 

The most crucial consequence of the speech was that now the world has confirmation from Turkey’s president—as opposed to unnamed officials in the country’s security apparatus—about Ankara’s version of events that led to Khashoggi’s fate.

A veiled jab at the crown prince

Throughout Erdogan’s speech, he demonstrated respect for King Salman, stating that he was confident that the Saudi monarch would sincerely cooperate with investigative efforts. 

Notably, Erdogan did not once mention MBS, yet he appeared to be implicating the crown prince, stating that the world must be aware of who was involved from “top to bottom” in the killing of Khashoggi.

The Turkish president demanded that Saudi Arabia answer unanswered questions.

“Where is the body? There are claims his body has been given to a local person, but who is this local person?” Erdogan asked. 

“Nobody is allowed to think this case will come to an end without answering all these questions,” Turkey’s president added.

Why have explanations and narratives shifted? Why was the consulate building opened to investigators days after the murder, instead of right after the Virginia-based Washington Post contributor’s disappearance? Why was there a body double in Khashoggi’s clothes leaving the consulate if there had been no intention to kill the US resident? Why was an autopsy and forensics expert part of the team?

Erdogan also called for an independent investigation not to be led by individuals suspected of involvement in Khashoggi’s death (i.e. MBS), and that suspects be tried in Turkey, not the Kingdom or any other country. 

The message to Saudi Arabia appears to be that while the Turkish leadership seeks no problems with King Salman, Ankara wants MBS marginalised.

It appears that the Turkish government’s slow drip of revelations has put pressure on Riyadh to abandon their initial denials of Khashoggi's death at the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, and come to publicly acknowledge the journalist’s death, and later “murder”, at the diplomatic mission. 

That Erdogan’s recent speech had omissions implies that the Turkish president has more information to use as leverage vis-a-vis Riyadh and Washington.

Averting a crisis in Saudi-Turkish relations

To be sure, it is too early to determine how the Khashoggi case will ultimately impact the future of Ankara-Riyadh relations. 

While a major escalation of tension between Turkish and Saudi leaders could result from this saga, Erdogan’s speech illustrates how the Turkish president is keen to offer Riyadh some ways out that would protect bilateral ties from hostility.

As a pragmatist, Erdogan sees the benefits of avoiding an escalating crisis between Turkey and Riyadh. 

In many ways, Turkey and the Kingdom cooperate closely, and the two have much to walk away from despite the existing friction and geopolitical rivalry between the two. 

Turkey’s economy stands to gain from future foreign direct investment from Saudi Arabia. Additionally, Saudi Arabia—like other Gulf states—has substantial economic relations with Turkey that stretch across numerous sectors such as banking, tourism, defence, and transportation

The Turkish president is sparing both countries a major diplomatic standoff that could result from Erdogan directly (rather than indirectly) accusing Saudi Arabia’s crown prince of slaying the US-based regime critic.

Officials in Riyadh must be wondering what concrete evidence the Turkish authorities possess that could back up their accusations about Khashoggi’s death. 

Certainly, Erdogan appears to be making the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the UAE Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ)—accused of playing a role in the failed coup plot in Turkey during 2016—nervous as Erdogan uses his leverage to severely weaken MBS, commonly understood as MBZ’s mentoree. 

By backing the Saudi Crown Prince into a corner, Erdogan is signalling that he does not want to deal with King Salman’s heir apparent as the next ruler of Saudi Arabia.

As this dramatic fallout from the Khashoggi case may escalate, it appears that Ankara is in a strong position to apply pressure on Riyadh amid a grander geopolitical power struggle between Turkey and the Kingdom as two poles of the Sunni Muslim world, which played out in the Qatar crisis and the Egyptian coup of 2013. 

The impact on this rivalry by Erdogan directly accusing MBS of a role in Khashoggi’s death is unclear. The tension between Ankara and Riyadh might be on the verge of reaching new heights if Saudi authorities fail to comply with Turkish demands for cooperation amid this unfinished saga.

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