A Convenient Murder: Khashoggi and Saudi-Turkish-US Relations

Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has shifted US focus away from Ankara’s poor treatment of journalists and allowed Turkey to take the offensive to an embattled Saudi regime.

Pixabay – Erika Wittlieb

The murder of Saudi activist and journalist Jamal Khashoggi is no longer in doubt. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has publicly made a statement referring to his ‘heinous death’. The problem is that the ‘heinous’ crime appears to have taken place inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago.

International criticism of Khashoggi’s killing has been swift, reflecting negatively on the Saudi state replete with all its measures seeking to stifle dissidence. Khashoggi was a columnist for the Washington Post. As such, his criticism of Saudi social immobilism was strongly felt throughout the kingdom. The fact that the evil act was perpetrated inside a diplomatic mission in Turkey invited a host country response.

Ironically, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s own practice of muzzling journalists in Turkey actually worked to the advantage of Turkish authorities in this affair. Erdogan’s control of the Turkish media created an institutional response. First, the Turks were able to control the international news cycle and squeeze every bit of publicity out of it. For two weeks, it seemed that the Turkish state was letting drip one news item after another related to the Khashoggi killing. The Turks asked for and obtained access to the Saudi diplomatic mission in Istanbul to search for crime clues and, perhaps, even Khashoggi’s body. In the meantime, pressure from the international community mounted, absorbing even the Saudis’ American allies in the White House.

The Khashoggi affair also took international focus off of Turkey’s own poor treatment of dissident journalists. Turkey tops the world in jailed journalists, so the Khashoggi death and the media circus that followed make eminent sense to those seeking to distract from Turkey’s own treatment of journalists.

Saudi-Turkey bilateral relations

The Khashoggi affair has played a role in articulating Turkish foreign policy and bilateral relations with some key countries. The ability to control the media message coming out of Turkey has been essential, and it allows us to get some penetrating glimpses of Turkish regional and foreign policy objectives.

By the sheer nature and diplomatic setting of the dastardly crime, one would expect that bilateral relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been severely impacted by Khashoggi’s demise. Relations have always been somewhat rocky between Riyadh and Ankara, two of the three largest Sunni states in the Middle East. Historically, the Saudis supported the Arab revolt against the Ottomans during World War I. To the Saudis, the current Turkish ruling party’s efforts to extend Turkish influence in the Middle East smack of neo-Ottomanism. The Saudis are also conscious that Erdogan is a close friend of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, both arch-enemies of the Saudi royal family. Moreover, as it emerges from its Kemalist secular legacy, Turkey has become a mouth-piece for conservative Islam, like the Muslim Brotherhood, accompanied by a form of neo-Ottoman republicanism. Although they are both Sunni regional powers, Ankara does not share the number one foreign policy objective of Riyadh, which is in fierce opposition to Iran and its regional proxies like Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon and the Houthi tribes in Yemen.

On a personal level, Turkish President Erdogan has always enjoyed better relations with the geriatric Saudi leadership rather than the younger upstart, Prince bin Salman. The generational gap is real and helps explain Erdogan’s closer relations with Qatar. Recent economic worries underscored for Turkey the importance of having at least one solid ally in the Arabian Gulf. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia oppose the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, although the Turks appear to have put some water in their wine when it comes to dealing with the Iranian leadership on the future of Syria.

These factors have all combined to create distance between Riyadh and Ankara, explaining Erdogan’s interest in prolonging the news cycle of the Khashoggi affair.

Relations with Trump’s America

If Turkish and Saudi foreign policy objectives are like two ships passing in the night, Saudi relations with the new Trump Administration in Washington had never been better until the Khashoggi affair occurred.

Despite calls in Congress for sanctions against the Saudis, the White House has bathed in the glow of lucrative arms deals and high-level contacts with mysterious webs of oil financers. Now with John Bolton as the National Security Advisor, US opposition to Iran is priority number one.

In contrast, Turkey’s top foreign policy objective is to marginalise the Kurds and eliminate their forces from Eastern Turkey. As such, Turkey has chosen to deal with Iran. Iran is part of the Gang of Three – Russia, Turkey and Iran – and its role in Syria is crucial. Iranian support for containing the Kurdish militants along the Turkish border is in part a response to Turkish anger at US support and arming of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia in Syria. Iran’s presence in the Gang of Three gives Turkey a counterweight to US support for the YPG Kurds in Syria.

How has the Khashoggi affair affected relations between Washington and Ankara? Relations were already strained. Factors include: the continued exile in the US of Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of having played a role in the attempted coup d’état in July 2016; the imprisonment of a US preacher by Turkish authorities raising the spectre of religious persecution; the memory of the Armenian genocide; and Trump’s denigration of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Since Turkish foreign policy has always been based on its special link between the West and the Middle East and Asia, the NATO card is of key strategic value to the Turks, and Trump’s scathing attacks on NATO have undervalued this Turkish asset.

For the Turks, Khashoggi’s murder has been a godsend, shifting focus away from its own poor treatment of journalists and allowing it to take the offensive, formulating irksome demands on an embattled Saudi regime. One can only imagine the Turkish state-controlled media if and when they discover Khashoggi’s body. In the meantime, the US Congress spends its energy arguing with itself and the Saudis over what might constitute a fair and even-handed response to Khashoggi’s murder.

<style><!-- -->#articlecontent a{<!-- --> color: #8a1f03; text-decoration: underline;<!-- -->}<!-- --></style>


[i] Jerome L McElroy and Courtney E Parry, "The long-term propensity for political affiliation in island microstates," Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 50, no. 4 (2012), 403-21. See also Leslie Dunn, "The Impact of Political Dependence on Small Island Jurisdictions," World Development 39, no. 12 (2011), 2132-46; Gert Oostindie, "Dependence and autonomy in sub-national island jurisdictions: The case of the Kingdom of the Netherlands," The Round Table 95, no. 386 (2006), 609-26; Godfrey Baldacchino and David Milne, "Exploring sub-national island jurisdictions: An editorial introduction," The Round Table 95, no. 386 (2006), 487-502; Geoff Bertram, "On the convergence of small island economies with their metropolitan patrons," World Development 32, no. 2 (2004), 343-64.

[ii] United Nations General Assembly, "Declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples. Resolution 1514 (XV) 14 December 1960," United Nations, 1960, http://www.un.org/en/decolonization/declaration.shtml (accessed 20 March 2016).

[iii] United Nations General Assembly, Resolution 61/295. 61/295. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  (New York: UN, 2007), 1-4.

[iv] Godfrey Baldacchino and Eve Hepburn, "A different appetite for sovereignty? Independence movements in subnational island jurisdictions," Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 50, no. 4 (2012), 555.

[v] Nathalie Mrgudovic, "Evolving approaches to sovereignty in the French Pacific," Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 50, no. 4 (2012), 456.

[vi] Eve Hepburn, "Recrafting sovereignty: lessons from small island autonomies," in Political autonomy and divided societies: Imagining democratic alternatives in complex settings, ed. Alain Gagnon and Michael Keating (Basingstoke: Palgrave Mcmillan, 2012), 123.

[vii] Nationsonline.org, "Overseas Territories, Dependent Areas, and Disputed Territories," 2013, http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/territories.htm (accessed 20 March 2016).

[viii] Guy Agniel, "L'expérience statutaire de la Nouvelle-Calédonie ou de l'étude du mouvement du yo-yo au service de l'évolution institutionnelle d'un ancien territoire d'outre-mer," in L'avenir statutaire de la Nouvelle-Calédonie (updated from 1997 edition), ed. Jean Yves Faberon (Paris: NED, 2009), 6.

[ix] Carine David, "Lois du pays et Question prioritaire de constitutionnalité. Vers un renforcement de l’État de droit en Nouvelle-Calédonie " Revue Française de droit constitutionnel 98, no. 2 (2014), 327-29.

[x] ISEE, "Tableau de l'Economie Calédonienne (version abrégée, 2015)," (Nouméa: Institut de la Statistique et des Etudes Économiques Nouvelle Calédonie (ISEE), 2015), 81.

[xi] Ibid. Henri Torre, "Rapport d’information fait au nom de la commission des Finances, du contrôle budgétaire et des comptes économiques de la Nation sur la mission de contrôle effectuée en Nouvelle‐Calédonie relative à la défiscalisation des usines de traitement du nickel. N°7.," Sénat français, 2005, http://www.senat.fr/rap/r05-007/r05-007_mono.html (accessed 20 March 2016).

[xii] IEOM, "Nouvelle-Calédonie. Rapport Annuel 2013," (Nouméa: Institut d'Emission de l'Outre-Mer (IEOM), 2014), 67.

[xiii] UN, "Repertory of Practice of United Nations Organs. Supplement No. 8 (Revised advance version, to be issued in volume II of Supplement No. 8, forthcoming). Registration and publication of treaties and international agreements: Regulations to give effect to Article 102 of the Charter of the United Nations," in Art. 102, Repertory, Suppl. 8, Vol. VI (1989-1994), ed. UN (New York: UN, 1994).

[xiv] Séverine Blaise, "Atouts et difficultés d’un développement durable de la Nouvelle‐Calédonie," Revue Juridique, Politique et Economique de Nouvelle‐Calédonie 21, no. 1 (2013), 71.

[xv] The voting processes in fourth column have, of course, differed on the various islands. Often people have had multiple options. In this column we count the votes against independence. E.g., in 1984 the Cocos Islands voted on three options – integration with Australia, free association with Australia, or independence – and in this column we added up the results of votes in favour of the first two options. The UN list and the CIA list are: CIA, "The World Factbook," Central Intelligence Agency, 2016, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook/fields/2068.html#46 (accessed 20 March 2016); UN, "The United Nations and decolonization. The non-self-governing territories," UN, 2014, http://www.un.org/en/decolonization/nonselfgovterritories.shtml (accessed 20 March 2016).


Dr. Bruce Mabley is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau Group think tank based in Montreal devoted to analysis of international politics. He is a former Canadian diplomat and is decorated by the French Republic as Chevalier des Palmes Académiques.