We can’t close our eyes

The Observer - - Worlcdhallenge -

The furore over the dis­ap­pear­ance, and pre­sumed mur­der, of Ja­mal Khashoggi, a high-pro­file critic of the Saudi regime, has drawn two of the Mid­dle East’s most ruth­less lead­ers into di­rect con­fronta­tion. Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, the crown prince of Saudi Ara­bia, and Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan, Turkey’s pres­i­dent, have much in com­mon, not least be­ing ac­cus­tomed to get­ting their own way.

As en­e­mies of free speech and a free press, Bin Sal­man and Er­doğan also share a dis­like of brave peo­ple such as Khashoggi who speak up and hold pow­er­ful au­to­crats to ac­count. Iron­i­cally, it is the fate of this lib­eral jour­nal­ist that has sparked a cri­sis be­tween these too most il­lib­eral fig­ures. Re­la­tions be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Turkey were al­ready strained by dif­fer­ences over Syria, Riyadh’s cold war with Qatar and Ankara’s al­liance with Iran. Now it is all com­ing to a head.

Er­doğan, fore­most leader of a mod­ern Is­lamist re­vival that has rolled back Turkey’s sec­u­lar­ist tra­di­tions, has long por­trayed him­self a cham­pion for the Mus­lim world. He sup­ported the Arab spring re­volts and was quick to travel to Egypt af­ter the de­fen­es­tra­tion of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Er­doğan con­demned the sub­se­quent over­throw of the Mus­lim Brother­hood govern­ment and has dis­tanced Turkey from Ab­del Fatah al-Sisi’s mil­i­tary-backed regime.

Af­ter at­tempt­ing a rap­proche­ment with Is­rael as part of an ex­pan­sion­ist for­eign pol­icy known as neoOt­toman­ism, ever-cho­leric Er­doğan fell out with Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s govern­ment over its mis­treat­ment of the Pales­tini­ans. More re­cently, Er­doğan has en­gaged in mul­ti­ple dis­putes with the US over its sup­port for Kur­dish forces in Syria, al­leged com­plic­ity in a 2016 army coup and Don­ald Trump’s recog­ni­tion of Jerusalem as Is­rael’s cap­i­tal.

Bin Sal­man sees him­self as an in­ter­na­tional stan­dard-bearer, too, as a fu­ture king whose coun­try guards Is­lam’s holi­est shrines. But his in­stinct is to crush moves to­wards greater democ­racy at home and across the Arab world, ex­em­pli­fied by the bru­tal Saudi mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Bahrain. He has cosied up to Trump, moved closer to Is­rael and joined forces with both to pun­ish Iran. To this end, he launched the dis­as­trous in­ter­ven­tion in Ye­men and it is Bin Sal­man who should one day be asked to an­swer for war crimes per­pe­trated there.

Any il­lu­sions the western democ­ra­cies may have held about the true na­ture of Er­doğan’s lead­er­ship – in­tol­er­ant, di­vi­sive, con­fronta­tional and op­pres­sive – have been largely dis­pelled as he has tight­ened his per­sonal grip on Turkey over nearly two decades. Bin Sal­man, a younger man whose rise to promi­nence is more re­cent, is still viewed in some quar­ters as a re­former. This mis­ap­pre­hen­sion arises from his very lim­ited so­cial and eco­nomic re­forms, which have been mis-sold around the world by ex­pen­sive PR spin.

What the Khashoggi af­fair cru­elly demon­strates is that the Saudi regime’s un­ac­count­able, re­pres­sive po­lit­i­cal con­trol has in fact been ex­panded, re­in­forced and em­bold­ened. Bin Sal­man has be­come a dic­ta­tor in all but name. He plainly feels he can do what­ever he likes, with im­punity, and that the western world, mis­led by the US, will tamely ac­qui­esce, pri­mar­ily out of eco­nomic and strate­gic self-in­ter­est. Af­ter all, this is what has been hap­pen­ing for decades.

This pol­icy of ap­peas­ing and fa­cil­i­tat­ing a regime that shows con­tempt for ba­sic western val­ues was al­ways a mis­take. Boy­cotting in­vest­ment con­fer­ences and ques­tion­ing the Saudi am­bas­sador over tea is nowhere near enough. Sell­ing weaponry used to kill Ye­meni chil­dren, and ig­nor­ing the jail­ing of Saudi women’s rights cam­paign­ers, is morally in­sup­port­able. So, too, is the mur­der of an in­no­cent man whose only of­fence was to speak his mind.

Er­doğan, even­tu­ally, will prob­a­bly agree some kind of grubby back­door trade-off with Bin Sal­man. It’s what un­scrupu­lous dic­ta­tors do. But for the west, the Khashoggi af­fair is a turn­ing point – and the Bri­tish govern­ment, and its al­lies, must recog­nise it as such.

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