In Khashoggi’s Death, A Battle Over Regional Power Looms

A June 2004 file photo of Jamal Khashoggi, who was then a media advisor to Prince Turki Al-Faisal, outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Britain will be under increasing pressure to act against Saudi Arabia after the Gulf kingdom admitted Khashoggi was killed at its Istanbul consulate. (Johnny Green/PA Wire/Abaca Press/TNS)

October 23, 2018

By Nabih Bulos

BEIRUT — The slow-speed admission by Saudi Arabia that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul has been more than a begrudging journey toward justice.

It has also become the latest front in a battle for regional power between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, two figures who have sought to stamp their vision on their respective countries as well as the wider region, even as they redefine their relationship with the U.S. and Europe.

In Khashoggi, Erdogan has found a golden opportunity to strike at the crown prince.

“There’s a big strategic game here, and MBS is in a fragile position,” said Soner Cagaptay, author of “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey” in a phone interview Monday.

The longstanding competition between the two Sunni Muslim Middle East powers flared in 2013 when Saudi Arabia backed a military-led coup in Egypt that toppled elected President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Sunni transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement.

More than five years later, Erdogan, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, still refuses to recognize the government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

“This alliance targets Erdogan because not only has he not recognized the Egyptian government, but has given safe haven to a large number of Muslim Brotherhood opposition types, which the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates see as serious internal threats,” Cagaptay said.

The rift has intensified since bin Salman’s ascent to power in 2015.

Reacting to a Riyadh-led blockade of Qatar, Erdogan dispatched Turkish troops to protect the tiny Gulf nation from an invasion by its neighbors. Ankara is now setting up a military base in the country, and earlier this month signed a military cooperation pact with Kuwait, another neighbor of Saudi Arabia that has tussled with bin Salman over oil rights.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s anti-Iran focus — an obsession shared by Saudi leaders about their rival Shiite Muslim neighbor — and his push for Israeli-Palestinian peace have placed bin Salman at the heart of the administration’s Middle East policy.

The U.S. has given bin Salman logistic and weapons support to pursue a war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. And presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump’s point man in the region, has tasked bin Salman with lobbying his Arab allies to accept an Israeli-Palestinian deal that many believe would be unacceptable to the Palestinians.

That has served to impair Erdogan’s position as the region’s top figure and leading champion for Sunni Muslims.

Erdogan himself cut ties with Israel for six years after an Israeli raid on a flotilla to the blockaded Gaza Strip killed 10 Turkish activists in 2010. A year later he threw his full support behind Syrian opposition groups, allowing them to use Turkish border towns as staging areas for attack on Syrian government troops. Under Erdogan’s rule, many in the region have viewed Turkey as a model for political Islam, even dubbing him “The Lion of the Sunnis” in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Since the crown prince is now seen as the weakest link among Sunni countries against the Muslim Brotherhood, Cagaptay said, Erdogan’s “goal is to get a consensus from MBS’ father that would see him at least sidelined or neutralized.”

In pursuit of that aim, Erdogan’s operatives seized control of the narrative almost from the first day of Khashoggi’s mysterious disappearance and have refused to let go.

Although there were few official statements, an adviser to Erdogan made clear early on that Khashoggi had never left the Saudi consulate after entering Oct. 2.

Later, adviser Yasin Aktay revealed that Khashoggi, who had gone there to handle routine paperwork, had been killed inside — long before the Saudis admitted to it.

Erdogan himself was uncharacteristically tight-lipped, saying little more than that he was personally following the issue and “hoping for a positive outcome.” Bin Salman, meanwhile, in an interview with Bloomberg, said Khashoggi had left the consulate.

At that point, the media focus might have faded were it not for a further series of leaks by unidentified Turkish officials that rebutted Saudi and American efforts to downplay the issue.

It helped that the details had all the makings of an old-fashioned spy thriller: A 15-man Saudi hit squad; a gory death followed by dismemberment with a bone saw; an audio recording of the slaying obtained by unknown means by Turkish intelligence, reported to exist but yet to be released.

Eventually, the Saudis acknowledged the journalist’s death, but they have offered contradictory explanations, insisting it was a “rogue operation” and then an interrogation that went too far. They have yet to disclose what happened to the body of the 59-year-old Khashoggi, a contributor to The Washington Post.

Monday brought a new round of leaks, with CNN obtaining surveillance footage depicting one of the 15 Saudis wearing Khashoggi’s clothes, along with a fake beard and glasses, and walking out of the consulate, presumably to have set up an early cover story.

“Our assessment has not changed since Oct. 6,” a Turkish official told CNN. “This was a premeditated murder and the body was moved out of the consulate.”

The saga could reach a denouement on Tuesday, the day Erdogan promised in a speech over the weekend that all would be revealed “in its naked truth.”

The Khashoggi crisis has also come at an opportune time for a leader beset with problems at home and abroad.

Last month, the lira plunged to half its value to the dollar, and though it has slightly recovered the Turkish economy remains vulnerable. Erdogan’s appointment of his son-in-law Berat Albayrak as finance minister, a 40-year old businessman with no experience in the job, has done little to reassure foreign investors.

Erdogan also remains at loggerheads with the West over his ongoing purge of thousands of political opponents.

Turkey has taken in more than 3 million Syrian refugees, according to the U.N. It is eager to send them home, even as it works to sabotage plans for a U.S.-backed Kurdish enclave in eastern Syria for which Saudi Arabia recently pledged $100 million. (Ankara views Syrian Kurds as a proxy for Kurdish separatists at home.)

But there are limits to what Erdogan can do on his own, said Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

“Erdogan wants to force broader, bigger political changes to Saudi foreign policy, which largely emanate from MBS’ office,” said Stein in a phone interview Monday. “He’s rightly seen that the only one that can bring pressure on bin Salman is the U.S. The question is if team Trump will sacrifice relations, oil and its work on Iran for a murdered journalist.”


Bulos is a staff foreign correspondent.


©2018 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Foreign Affairs

Resolution Supporting Three Seas Initiative Unanimously Passes House
Foreign Affairs
Resolution Supporting Three Seas Initiative Unanimously Passes House
November 24, 2020
by Sean Trambley

WASHINGTON – Last week, a bipartisan resolution introduced by Reps. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., and Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, supporting the Three Seas Initiative unanimously passed the U.S. House of Representatives. The Three Seas Initiative is a strategic partnership of twelve Central and Eastern European nations with the... Read More

Biden Looks to Rehire Diplomats, Others Fired by Trump to Rebuild State Department
Dep. of State
Biden Looks to Rehire Diplomats, Others Fired by Trump to Rebuild State Department

WASHINGTON — Five days after President Donald Trump took office, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, was summarily fired — the start of what was to become a purge of senior State Department officials and career professionals over nearly four years. Now Thomas-Greenfield is back, leading President-elect Joe Biden's State Department transition... Read More

EU Auditors: Antitrust Probes Too Slow to Curb Tech Giants
European Union
EU Auditors: Antitrust Probes Too Slow to Curb Tech Giants

LONDON (AP) — The EU's efforts to rein in the power of big tech companies such as Google and Facebook through antitrust investigations have taken too long, dulling their effectiveness, a report said Thursday. Legal tools available to the bloc's competition regulators, meanwhile, have not kept... Read More

A Look at Trans-Atlantic Cooperation After the US Election
Foreign Affairs
A Look at Trans-Atlantic Cooperation After the US Election
November 17, 2020
by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON — The recent U.S. election left much for both Americans and European allies to process in terms of the shaping of U.S. politics and global affairs.  President-elect Biden, historically a committed trans-Atlanticist, has reaffirmed his commitment to European allies in early statements post-election.  Yet doubts... Read More

Bipartisan Coalition Leads Charge to Strengthen Partnerships with African Nations
Foreign Affairs
Bipartisan Coalition Leads Charge to Strengthen Partnerships with African Nations
November 16, 2020
by Sean Trambley

WASHINGTON – Reps. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., Anthony G. Brown, D-Md., Austin Scott, R-Ga., and Richard Hudson, R-N.C., have introduced the Africa Foreign Relations, International Cooperation, and Assistance Act, H.R. 8186, to enhance security and economic partnerships between the United States and African countries.   The bill requires... Read More

World Watches, Worries and Wags a Finger as US Election Count Drags On
Foreign Affairs
World Watches, Worries and Wags a Finger as US Election Count Drags On

SINGAPORE — Transfixed by a U.S. presidential vote that failed to swiftly yield a clear winner, a watching world responded Wednesday with a mixture of worry, disbelief and, in some quarters, scorn. Many foreign allies weighed in with precisely the kind of counsel that U.S. diplomats and officials for generations have... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top