What is increasingly looking like the gruesome murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, as described by Turkish police, has dominated the headlines in Turkey this week. If the Turkish government builds what it views as an airtight case for this mob-style hit on Turkish soil—which many Turks are convinced was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself—relations between the two countries are likely to crater. This Turkey-Saudi face-off has been building throughout this decade and may be about to reach a crescendo. Given the US entanglements in the Middle East, these developments will affect Washington as well.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman helped announce Mohammed bin Salman to the world in a fawning interview for which Friedman was widely criticized, in that he neglected to mention Saudi Arabia’s legion of political prisoners, its flogging of dissidents, or its brutal war on Yemen. According to The New Yorker, Friedman responded to his critics at a Brookings Institution event that the Middle East is in flames, “And so when I see someone who is having the balls to take on the religious component of that, to take on the economic component, to take on the political, with all of his flaws…I wanna stick my head up and say, ‘God, I hope you succeed.’ And when you do that the holy hell comes down on you. Well, ‘Fuck that’ is my view, O.K.?” One suspects that Friedman might have worn less deeply rose-colored glasses had bin Salman not signaled a willingness to ally with Israel against Iran.
Rather than being a genial reformer palling around with Silicon Valley luminaries, bin Salman’s inner psychopath may have once again revealed itself, as when he arbitrarily imprisoned dozens of Saudi princes last year and extorted their wealth, or when he kidnapped the sitting prime minister of Lebanon, or when in 2015 he abruptly ordered a massive campaign, continuing to this day, of bombing and missile strikes on Yemen, a third of which have hit civilians, as of fall 2016, according to one comprehensive study.
The Istanbul police, less star-struck than Friedman, have formed special forensics teams to go into the Saudi consulate, which will use Luminol chemicals and infrared to discover bloodstains, and attempt to find DNA samples of Khashoggi.
As for Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the diplomatic disagreements between the two regional giants have been multiplying. The Saudis had supported the 2013 military coup against Egypt’s democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, whereas Turkey’s ruling pro-Muslim Justice and Development Party (AKP) sided with the Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia typically stands with the nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization, while Turkey supports Hamas in Gaza. Saudi Arabia has joined the Trump administration’s attempts to blockade Iran, whereas Turkey has announced that it will defy Washington and expand its trade ties with Tehran. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in June of 2017 launched a campaign to crush little Qatar, while Turkey sent troops to Doha to protect the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim.
Indeed, the Saudi decision to whack the globe-trotting Khashoggi, whom they may have tracked via his phone or Apple watch, in Turkey may have itself been intended as a taunt to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been a consistent thorn in their side. If so, Mohammed bin Salman might have been confident he could withstand Erdogan’s fury because of the crown prince’s friendship with Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
In contrast, Turkey’s government has feuded with Trump on several key issues. Erdogan is furious about US military support for Syrian Kurds of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), whom Ankara views as an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which in turn Turkey brands a terrorist organization. The United States does not agree that the Syrian Kurds are connected to the PKK. The Turkish judicial system is also holding an American missionary on charges of espionage and associating with terrorist groups, and Erdogan has resisted Trump’s demand that the pastor be released immediately.
Another issue percolates in the background. Erdogan wants Washington to extradite the elderly Fethullah Gülen, leader of the Gülenist, or Hizmet, movement, who is wanted in Turkey for alleged involvement in the 2016 failed coup attempt against the AKP government. Gülen, who moved to the United States in the late 1990s and lives in Pennsylvania, is now a permanent resident. Although Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had allegedly entertained a hare-brained scheme to kidnap Gülen and spirit him away to Ankara, the current administration has shown no interest in accommodating the Turkish president’s demands. The Trump administration’s clear desire to sweep the Khashoggi hit under the carpet will further stoke Erdogan’s anger at the United States, supposedly his NATO ally, but from which he has increasingly distanced himself.
The Middle East is increasingly divided along these new fault lines. Governments like those of Turkey and Qatar that support populist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, or, like that of Iran, that uphold the possibility of a political Islam different from Saudi Arabia’s are ranged against the Abu Dhabi/Riyadh/Cairo axis of top-down nationalist authoritarianism. The Trump administration, ironically enough given its own populism, tilts to the nationalist strongmen and views the Middle Eastern populists as a danger to US interests. The Khashoggi murder may help cement this divide, further disrupting Turkey-Saudi relations.
If, as seems likely, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death, he has raised the specter of a new Moammar El-Gadhafi in the Middle East—brutal, calculating, and entirely without conscience. Only this time, the strongman psychopath is not the shunned leader of a small state, but presides over a country of some 28 million, millions of whom are noncitizen guest workers, with an annual gross domestic product of $684 billion. Turkey, increasingly the nemesis of Riyadh, is, however, far more populous (81 million), with an even larger economy, of nearly $849 billion annually. Countries in the Middle East seem increasingly likely to be asked to choose up sides in this new cold war. With no ambassador in either Riyadh or Ankara, and with an erratic and deeply ignorant president at the helm, the United States will likewise have to navigate between a NATO ally and its favorite gasoline station in the region. Can the Trump administration do so in such a way that will tamp down the conflict rather than to inflame it?
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Saudi Arabia’s guest-worker population as a subset of the total.