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.