SAUDI Arabia is still unable — or unwilling — to provide a plausible explanation for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Instead, a somewhat unlikely narrator has stepped in.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed his party in Ankara on Tuesday, promising to reveal the “naked truth” about the death of the prominent Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributing columnist, who was killed after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2.

Explore: Nine key questions Saudi Arabia hasn’t answered about Khashoggi killing

There were no big revelations in the speech, but Erdogan confirmed a number of leaked details about the investigation into Khashoggi’s death and attacked the Saudis’ latest explanation of it after they admitted that the journalist had been killed.

“Saudi Arabia took an important step by accepting the murder,” Erdogan said. “After this, we expect them to reveal those responsible for this matter. We have information that the murder is not instant but planned.”

It was a stark contrast with the scene in Riyadh, where Saudi Arabia is holding a major investment conference — and where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been accused of approving the slaying, received a standing ovation.

The idea that Erdogan is the noble truth-teller of the Khashoggi case is confusing and deeply uncomfortable for many people. Since he first took power in 2003, Erdogan has broadly turned Turkish media into a government mouthpiece, often by way of violence and arrests. The Committee to Protect Journalists now says that more journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than in any other country.

Jamal Khashoggi: From royal insider to open critic

But if no one knows what Erdogan’s motivations are, one thing seems certain: he’s the one in the driver’s seat. The Turkish government has repeatedly pressed the Saudis, demanding more information, casting doubt on Riyadh’s claims and even gaining access to the Saudi Consulate. It is widely assumed that Turkish officials have controlled the drip, drip, drip of leaks that has fed much of the media coverage of Khashoggi’s disappearance.

“Such inflammatory information, originating in the security services and implicating a major rival regional power, would not be published without approval from the top,” Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir wrote for BuzzFeed on Monday. “What happens next,” he said elsewhere in the piece, “is almost entirely under the Turkish strongman’s control.”

Broader geopolitical implications

So what is Erdogan trying to accomplish? The Turkish leader may have seen a kindred spirit in Khashoggi — the journalist had an affinity for the sort of political Islam that Erdogan espouses — or simply been furious about having a provocative political killing committed by Saudi Arabia on his country’s soil.

But it is hard to ignore the broader geopolitical implications. Turkey is a key ally of Qatar, a country that has faced a Saudi-led boycott for more than a year. As my Washington Post colleague Ishaan Tharoor wrote this month, such ties are part of Erdogan’s jockeying to match the growing influence of Mohammed, the youthful and powerful crown prince in Riyadh.

“Turkey flew troops and food supplies into Qatar last year and still maintains a military base in Doha,” Tharoor wrote. “Meanwhile, the Qataris pledged to inject some $15 billion worth of investment in Turkey’s flagging economy in August. Some analysts read Ankara’s moves — coupled with Erdogan’s overtures to Iran over the past year — as a riposte to the emergence of a US-backed Middle East bloc including the Saudis, Emiratis and even Israel.”

Tuesday’s speech cemented the impression that Erdogan is targeting Mohammed. The Turkish president didn’t mention the crown prince by name during his address, speaking instead to King Salman, the crown prince’s father and the official head of the Saudi state. Many observers viewed it as an attempt to divide the elderly king from his divisive son.

The Turkish leader no doubt relished the chance to change the dominant narrative about his country as well. Turkey has largely been in the news for various spats with Western countries, Erdogan’s crackdowns and the considerable economic woes caused by his government’s financial mismanagement.

And what of the United States, Turkey’s Nato ally and ostensible close partner? Erdogan has recently made overtures to President Donald Trump. Just days after Khashoggi disappeared, Turkey freed American pastor Andrew Brunson from house arrest in Turkey, easing a long-running standoff with the United States.

But the leverage Erdogan has over Mohammed is uncomfortable for Washington, too. Despite growing anger with the kingdom in Washington, Saudi support is key to much of the United States’ policy in the Middle East.

“The chief concern for Washington is that Erdogan will reveal details about Khashoggi’s killing that implicate” the crown prince, The Post noted in a report about CIA Director Gina Haspel’s heading to Turkey.

"Saudis doing great job at ruining themselves"

There is a chance that Erdogan’s power plays could backfire. Michael Stephens, a research fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, wrote on Twitter that it was beginning to look as if the Turkish leader was dragging things out to keep the story alive.

“The moral high ground is slipping, fast,” he wrote. Even so, the Turkish president has been dealt a great set of cards by the Saudis, who have looked cruel and incompetent as the saga has unfolded.

On Tuesday, for example, the official Saudi Press Agency published photos of King Salman and the crown prince meeting two members of Khashoggi’s family, including his son — inadvertently highlighting the reports that the journalist’s family has been blocked from leaving the country.

“We do not have to do anything,” a senior Turkish official recently told The Wall Street Journal. “The Saudis are doing a great job at ruining themselves.”

By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, October 25th, 2018

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