Middle East players facing new test
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has become the epitome of a game of power in the Middle East, testing old alliances and shaking up the geostrategic balance, analysts have said.
The killing on Oct 2 shortly after the self-exiled writer entered Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul has tarnished Riyadh’s international reputation as it changed accounts of how he died. After offering numerous contradictory explanations, Riyadh later said Khashoggi had been killed when negotiations to persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia failed.
In a region where violent conflicts have killed hundreds of thousands of people, the brutal slaying of The Washington Post columnist by Saudi agents was one of the most significant events of 2018.
Istanbul has said the writer was suffocated by Saudi agents in the consulate, before his body was dismembered and disposed of. His remains have not been found.
By consciously exposing the evidence it claims it has, the Turkish government has fully used this opportunity to re-establish the balance of power in the Middle East, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said he would not give up the case, analysts said.
Wang Jin, a research fellow at the Syria Research Center of Northwest University in China, said Turkey has used the case to dent the prestige of Saudi Arabia — its main rival in the Sunni Islamic world, as Ankara presses for accountability over Riyadh’s intervention in the civil conflict in Yemen, which the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, while Saudi Arabia’s “blockade” of Qatar is seen as splitting the Arab world.
“Moreover, because of the special bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, especially the close friendship between the US first family and Riyadh, Ankara has been able to win tangible diplomatic benefits,” he said.
The Turkish government is pushing for the case to shift in its favor, said Ren Yuanzhe, an associate professor of diplomatic research at China Foreign Affairs University, given its severe domestic economic difficulties.
Inflation remains one of the most pressing problems for the country’s economy, after it weathered a currency crisis earlier this year when the Turkish lira lost nearly 40 percent of its value against the dollar.
“Ankara can exert pressure on both Riyadh and Washington by taking advantage of the case. On one hand, it hopes Riyadh will provide direct assistance and investment to overcome the economic crisis. On the other, it wishes the US would pay more attention to Turkey’s strategic role in the region, and further draw closer to Washington from the perspective of trilateral relations with the US and Saudi Arabia.”
On the Khashoggi case, because the US wants to maintain good relations with regional ally Saudi Arabia, which is important to Washington’s Middle East strategy and is a huge arms market, it is unlikely that Washington will blame Riyadh.
Actually, Western countries including the US, France and Canada have placed sanctions on nearly 20 Saudi nationals, despite Saudi Arabia insisting the crown prince had no prior knowledge of the murder. Many firms, investors and bankers chose to stay away from a preplanned international conference in Saudi Arabia that was grandly advertised as “Davos in the Desert”.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now looking into ways to cancel a giant 2014 weapons deal with Saudi Arabia. In October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country would suspend arms sales to Riyadh.
“The Khashoggi case has given Turkey unusual leverage in regional power plays,” Wang said, adding that Turkey has managed to consolidate its influence in Syria over the Kurdish problem and increase demands for the extradition of the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in US exile for nearly two decades. Ankara suspects him of being behind a 2016 coup attempt.
“It will make the US government make certain concessions on the issues of Syria and Gulen.”
The fallout is also testing the alliance between Washington and Riyadh.
Although US President Donald Trump has asserted the petro-state’s importance as a lucrative buyer of US arms and a bulwark against their common foe Iran, US lawmakers appear in no mood to give a free pass over the murder.
In an unusual pushback against the government, the GOP-controlled US Senate on Dec 13 voted to recommend ending US military assistance to the Saudi-led operation in Yemen, and accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of involvement in the death of Khashoggi.
The resolutions cannot be debated in the House of Representatives before January, and would likely be vetoed in any case by Trump. But the Senate vote has sent a strong message to the White House over anger on both sides of the aisle toward Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia rejected the Senate’s move, calling it an “interference” in the kingdom.
“The killing has sparked multiple battles that are likely to shape relationships ranging from that between the US and Saudi Arabia to those between Trump, his Republican Party, the US Congress and the country’s intelligence community,” said James Dorsey, a fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “The fallout of the killing could also shape Trump’s ability to pursue his policy goals in the Middle East.”
Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute in the US, said: “It looks set to really impact US-Saudi ties very negatively in 2019, regardless of what the Trump administration thinks it can do to stop or prevent it.”
However, Wang said that, to some extent, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey can be all regarded as “winners” over the case, considering their core interests remain unharmed.
“Ankara has gained a moral image and practical interests, while Washington has maintained relations with Riyadh which successfully limited political turmoil to both the government and royal family over the incident. It is hard to say which side was really severely damaged,” he said.
As the current confrontation in the Middle East is caused by the relative change of hard powers of each player, and the incident has not been translated into political turmoil in Saudi Arabia, he predicted, its impact will be limited in 2019.
Zou Zhiqiang, a researcher of Middle East studies at Shanghai International Studies University, echoed that, saying the influence of the incident cannot be overestimated.
“No matter Turkey, Saudi Arabia or the US, what they care about most is their practical interests, not the truth of the murder. The benefits Turkey has gained through the case will be limited as long as there is no fundamental change in camps based on national interests in the Middle East.
“As long as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states stay in the US alliance system, the US will not change its Middle East strategy and the goal of jointly deterring Iran is unchanged, the rivalry between both camps will continue, and regional hot spot issues will not disappear,” he said. AFP and AP contributed to this article.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday arrived in Riyadh, where he was scheduled to ask Saudi authorities to ensure the killers of journalist Jamal Khashoggi are held accountable.
The top US diplomat, on an extensive Middle East tour, embarked on his second politically sensitive visit to Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi’s murder inside the country’s Istanbul consulate sparked an international outcry.
“We will continue to have a conversation with the crown prince (Mohammed bin Salman) and the Saudis about ensuring the accountability is full and complete with respect to the unacceptable murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Pompeo told reporters in Qatar, before flying to Riyadh.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, was murdered on Oct 2 in what Saudi Arabia called a “rogue” operation, tipping the kingdom into a diplomatic crises and subsequently straining ties between Riyadh and Washington.
Pompeo’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he will be hosted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is part of an extensive eight-day trip to Amman, Cairo, Manama, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Muscat, and finally Kuwait City.
US President Donald Trump has brushed aside international outrage to stand by Riyadh over the murder of Khashoggi.
Riyadh prosecutors have announced indictments against 11 people, and are seeking the death penalty against five of them. Prince Mohammed was exonerated by prosecutors.
During his visit to Qatar, Pompeo refused to comment on reports Washington had recently considered military action against Iran.
US media reported on Sunday that the White House National Security Council last year asked the US Department of Defense to provide military options to strike Iran, citing former US officials. This request, which many saw as unusual, raised deep concern at the Pentagon and the State Department.
Pompeo also called on Qatar and other Gulf countries to end the worst political rift in the region in years, which has seen Qatar diplomatically and economically isolated by neighboring former allies for the past 19 months. He said the rift had gone on for too long and was threatening regional unity needed to counter Iran.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt — all US allies — cut ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing the country of supporting terrorist groups and seeking closer ties to Iran.
Qatar — also a US ally — denies the allegations and accuses those countries of seeking government change.