The Changing Dynamics of the Middle East In light of Jamal Khashoggi murder

Focus By Aashna John*


Erdogan opened his speech with condolences to not just the family and friends of the Saudi journalist, but to the ‘media world’ as well. This is ironic coming from the leader of a government that has imprisoned more journalists than any other place in the world.

Brief background

“I have been told that I need to accept, with gratitude, the social reforms that I have long called for while keeping silent on other matters, ranging from the Yemen quagmire, the hastily executed economic reforms, the blockade of Qatar, discussions about an alliance with Israel to counter Iran, and last year’s imprisonment of dozens of Saudi intellectuals and clerics.” Jamal Khashoggi wrote this in the Washington Post in May’; in retrospect now appearing as a premonition for how things may go wrong if he continued to be a vocal critic of the monarchy. His alleged state sponsored murder, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, has sparked worldwide outrage and has cast a long shadow over the Kingdom’s global image - especially in light of its “reformist” Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. This grisly crime holds the power to upend the status quo of the Middle East order and have significant implications for key players - Turkey, Iran and the United States.

Erdogan’s Motivation

It has been clear from the offset that this “great crisis” is not just about the death of a journalist but a battle for political leadership of the Islamic world. Almost everything that we know about the Khashoggi disappearance was revealed by state owned or pro-government media tamed by Turkey’s President Erdogan. His weekly parliamentary address, in which he spoke about the murder, gathered unprecedented global attention with its English broadcast breaking rating records.

Erdogan opened his speech with condolences to not just the family and friends of the Saudi journalist, but to the ‘media world’ as well. This is ironic coming from the leader of a government that has imprisoned more journalists than any other place in the world. Turkey is no beacon of liberal democracy in the region and neither is Erdogan a champion of free speech. He has executed his own press crackdown in a less gruesome but no less enthusiastic fashion than Saudi Arabia. Almost all critical news outlets have been seized by the government or bullied into silence since the 2016 coup attempt. In defending Khashoggi, Erdogan intends on increasing political leverage in the region and extracting an important price from the Saudis.

The Saudis and its Sunni allies had no love for Turkey or the “neo-Ottoman” ambitions of Erdogan. However, they hoped that a resurgent Sunni Turkey could help strengthen the coalition against Shia Iran. Erdogan’s animosity toward Riyadh is driven by radically different perspectives on the role of Islam in the future of the Middle East. He is a deeply devout and religious man with a plan to further Islam in Turkey and hoped that like-minded governments across the region would embrace the oppressed Islamists who sought to overthrow despotic regimes in a pro-democratic wave. His links to the Muslim Brotherhood movement go back a long way but have grown stronger in the wake of the Arab Spring in the late 2010. Erdogan wants to position himself as the leader of a new Middle East. This is a direct challenge to Saudi Arabia, the leader of the old Middle East and an avowed enemy of the Brotherhood.

Turkey’s impassioned backing of Mohamed Morsi, and other Brotherhood inspired movements created a kind of regional anti-Erdogan bloc led by the Saudis, General El Sisi of Egypt and the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. Gulf monarchies and dictatorships have long seen Muslim movements as existential threats and potentially disruptive to the established order.

Further, in 2017, when bin Salman unveiled a bold agenda of “returning the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam”, the most surprising attack came from Erdogan. At an international conference he attacked the crown prince with “He does not own Islam”. In doing so Erdogan was also rejecting the unofficial but long-standing Saudi claim as the guardian of Islam.

Lastly, Turkey’s impending economic crisis and the role of that cannot be negated. Ankara has an enormous amount of dollar denomination debt. They need hard currency, foreign exchange, investment opportunities and other economic reliefs. All of which Saudi Arabia and much of the Gulf countries can provide since currently Ankara is dependent on countries with liquidity. Erdogan is adamant on not going to the IMF or European allies to seek assistance and aid. It is for this reason also that Turkey will continue to milk the Khashoggi investigation for all its worth.

Changing Regional Dynamics

Ankara and Riyadh are on different political trajectories with the divisions not being limited to just Islam, but also to the changing geopolitical strongholds. For decades, Turkey stayed out of the region’s politics. As secular state, a member of the NATO and a candidate for the European Union membership, it was seeking deeper integration into the West. With Erdogan’s version of political Islam, the change in focus towards the Middle East was an inevitability. This has led to uncomfortable alliances and partnerships. In June 2017, the Saudi led trade and diplomatic blockade of Qatar resulted in the country seeking help from Turkey. Ankara readily deployed troops in a show of force to help ensure that the Saudis would not invade. Erdogan has also found a way of simultaneously competing and coordinating with Shia Iran in its alliance with Russia against the Saudis in Syria and Yemen, resulting in being accused by bin Salman as being part of the “triangle of evil”.

Saudi’s arch rival though seems to gain plenty from this chaos. In a March interview with TIME, the crown prince had declared, “Any problem in the Middle East, you will find Iran.” Well, not this one. Tehran has received political ammunition and a moral high ground at a time when foreign leaders widely criticize the regime for being the main source of instability in the region. Riyadh has gone to great lengths to isolate Tehran, from holding the Lebanese Prime Minister hostage, to building ties with Israel and punishing Qatar for its proximity to the Islamic Republic. For now, the Iranians are quietly savoring the sight of their foe cast in the role of a barbarian and making it even harder to portray Iran as the ultimate villain

Although, it is unlikely that there will occur a reframe in the political order across the region and undermine Saudi Arabia’s authority. A number of regional allies have sent messages of support for the Kingdom. Officials from Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, the Palestinian National Authority, the UAE and Yemen have expressed their backing for Riyadh and were quick to defend it with an apparently coordinated series of responses, further affirming Saudi’s role as the leading Muslim power in the Arab World.

The Saudi-US Alliance

President Trump may be facing one of the toughest and biggest US foreign policy crises since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979. He is deeply invested personally in the Saudi leader, making Riyadh his first overseas trip. After he took office, the Kingdom nearly tripled its spending on lobbying in Washington, developed a rapport with Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and even proposed a $110 billion arms deal.

From the lens of foreign policy, the alliance, while never comfortable, is old and deep. For decades, the US has used the Gulf to shape and direct its imperial interests in the larger Eurasian economy. Thanks to the trillions in military investment, the Saudis control the spigot through which roughly 24 percent of the world’s daily oil supply flows. Shared concerns extend to mediating role in the Israel-Palestine conflict and zealous opposition to Iran. Without the Saudi’s leadership role, America would find its monopoly severely impaired. This has resulted in the US largely overlooking the Saudi’s misconduct in cases of human rights violations and its role in Yemen.

The Khashoggi incident threatens this alliance. He was an English speaking journalist whose free speech and freedom of press were attacked. His story was relatable and reached the heart of American values in ways that the circumstances of other Saudi activists did not. The US State Department has revoked the visas of Saudi officials. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has decided to set in motion the Global Magnitsky Act, which could produce sanctions that would freeze the funds of any foreign officials implicated in the crimes. CIA Director Gina Haspel is in Turkey to investigate the matter while Trump has agreed to work with the US Congress to determine the US response.

But there are limits to this response. A look at the history of the region shows that even very high profile cases have had a subdued effect on how willing US politicians are to sanction to Saudi Arabia. To put things in better perspective, on November 5, the US will re-impose sanctions targeting any customers of Iran’s oil markets. The success for this will rest on Saudi Arabia’s ability to serve the businesses and countries no longer able to trade with Tehran. Experts believe that the ideal path that will follow is that Congress would impose minor sanctions on Riyadh. In return, the Kingdom will do something symbolic, such as withdrawing their diplomats from the US. Any action taken would be short lived, things will blow over and things will go back to how they were before.

The Future of Saudi Arabia

Jamal Khashoggi’s death may be historic but that does not mean that the response to it will be, which is unsurprising. This probably will not be the event that tangibly changes the rest of the world’s tolerance for Saudi Arabia’s atrocities. Imposing real economic sanctions that would actively harm the relationship appears to be off the table for America, irrespective of the rhetoric and attention dedicated to this individual tragedy might suggest.

Erdogan, on the other hand is likely to continue to push the Saudi leadership in the spotlight as he appears to have a lot to gain from Riyadh’s fractured global image. There is a strong possibility that the crown prince may be asked to step down but nothing beyond such. The biggest takeaway though, must be the huge fault line Middle East security and strategic spheres of influence that has once again been made visible via Jamal Khashoggi’s death.


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