WASHINGTON — The disappearance and suspected murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has temporarily shifted the balance of power in the Middle East, emboldening Turkey in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia, with the United States caught in the middle.
Some 17 days after Khashoggi vanished after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Saudi leaders face growing pressure to accept responsibility for his reported beheading even as they try to shield Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his father, King Salman.
President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear determined to bolster the Saudi royal family enough to avoid undermining its control of the oil-rich kingdom. But Washington and Ankara are trying to use the crisis to jockey for advantage in their own foreign policy priorities.
The Saudis desperately need damage control to maintain their grip on power. Ankara and Washington can provide it — for a price. Turkey also is eyeing concessions it can gain from the United States.
“This is the posturing of rival alliances,” said Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar and dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
“The Saudis have put themselves in a difficult position and need to salvage their relationship with the United States … and end the crisis without more hemorrhaging,” he said.
Turkey’s economy is in dire straits, and Erdogan is in a position to demand major concessions from a longtime regional rival in Riyadh, using hardball tactics to make the Saudi rulers squirm.
Turkish authorities have engineered a slow drip of news to state-controlled Turkish media, each day’s leaks more gruesome than before. Government officials in Ankara have spoken carefully about the case, however, allowing Erdogan to avoid direct criticism of the Saudis.
“Erdogan wants to maximize the pain and suffering of Saudi Arabia, but stay short of a full-blown crisis that breaks relations,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, a nonpartisan think tank. “The Turkish government also wants to suck the United States into this because it can’t bear the weight of confronting Saudi Arabia on its own.”
By leaving distance between himself and the leaked details of Khashoggi’s alleged torture and death, Erdogan offers the Saudis “an off-ramp,” Ibish added. “And he wants the Saudis to take that off-ramp.”
Few experts predicted a rupture in Saudi-U.S. relations. There may be pauses, several said, such as temporary holds on some arms purchases, imposition of minor economic sanctions or suspension of some technology transfers.
“If a major rethinking of the U.S.-Saudi relationship didn’t happen after 9/11, didn’t happen after the Iraq War, didn’t happen after the (Saudi-led war and) Yemen humanitarian disaster, then it won’t happen now,” Ibish said.
The White House has wavered on the Khashoggi case, initially slow to react, then seemingly eager to believe Saudi denials. At one point, Trump put out a much-mocked theory that “rogue killers” might be to blame. The president abruptly shifted course Thursday when he was asked directly if Khashoggi is dead.
“It certainly looks that way to me, it’s very sad,” Trump replied. Asked about consequences for Saudi Arabia if it is found responsible, Trump said, “Well, it’ll have to be severe. I mean it’s bad, bad stuff.”
It’s not yet clear how Trump will leverage that as he also touts America’s decades-old ties to Saudi Arabia, and the kingdom’s support for U.S. efforts against Islamic State, Iran and other regional adversaries.
Riyadh has helped pay for Trump’s push to constrain Iran, which it sees as an enemy, and plays a key role in the gathering of U.S. counterterrorism intelligence across the Muslim world.
Trump has emphasized the dollar value of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. He has repeatedly argued that he does not want the dispute over Khashoggi’s death to jeopardize what he falsely claims was $450 billion in deals to buy U.S. weapons and other goods. Many of the deals remain aspirational rather than contracts, but that could change.
“In that, he is being quite transparent,” Nasr said. “He is underscoring to the Saudis: This is the price.”
The energy market is another point of leverage. Trump previously had criticized the Saudis for failing to pump more oil, and he likely will use the Khashoggi crisis to try to secure a greater flow of oil into the global market — especially since the White House has announced plans to impose oil sanctions on Iran next month.
The White House wants the Saudis to ship their oil to Iran’s usual customers to make the sanctions work. Saudi oil exports also could substitute for plummeting production in Venezuela, another major producer, which is facing political, social and economic chaos.
For Turkey, the maneuvering is more complex.
In recent decades, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been rivals, backing opposite sides in many of the proxy wars and struggles in the Muslim world.
Turkey supported the Arab Spring and is allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, both detested by Saudi Arabia. Turkey is friendly with Iran and backed Qatar when Saudi Arabia imposed a draconian blockade on the tiny emirate.
Yet their shared histories go deeper. In the 1960s, the Saudi royal family helped build its first modern-day Islamist movement in steadfastly secular Turkey. Saudi Arabia has continued to funnel money into expensive property investments and other financial projects in Turkey.
Saudi Arabia reportedly gave Erdogan’s son $100 million in 2012 for the permits to build a palace overlooking the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul.
The relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia “is compartmentalized” said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an advocacy group in Washington.
“Business is business,” he said. “Saudi Arabia and Turkey can remain civil while fighting proxy conflicts around the Muslim world. They can separate ideology from business.”
Rather than burn bridges with Riyadh, Erdogan will instead attempt to extract economic and diplomatic sanctions, including possibly an easing of the Qatar blockade.
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“Riyadh and Ankara will cut a deal as soon as possible,” Erdemir predicted. “The U.S. will play along, and it will turn into a trilateral agreement. That is the best outcome for Washington and saves (Trump) from having to take more serious steps.”
Turkey boosted its standing in Washington by releasing an American evangelical preacher, Andrew Brunson, from two years’ detention as the Khashoggi crisis unfolded.
The timing gave Erdogan domestic political cover while gaining some favor from Trump. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said a number of punishing sanctions that the U.S. had imposed on Turkey likely would be lifted as a result.
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In Istanbul on Friday, investigators searched a forest area 15 miles outside Istanbul based on reports that two vehicles from the Saudi Consulate had visited the area several hours after Khashoggi disappeared, according to local media reports
Forensic teams also studied a third vehicle, a black Mercedes, that was left in the consulate’s garage, according to Yeni Safak, a daily newspaper.
The state-run Anadolu agency quoted an unnamed governmental source who said 15 Turkish employees at the Saudi Consulate, including drivers, accountants and telephone operators, had gone to Istanbul’s Caglayan courthouse to provide testimony.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said authorities would not release an audio recording that Turkish media says contains graphic evidence of Khashoggi’s slaying.
“We have certain information and evidence,” Cavusoglu, who was visiting Albania, told reporters. He said information would be “transparently shared” with the world once the investigation had concluded.
(Times staff writer Nabih Bulos contributed to this report from Istanbul.)
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