Mid­dle East play­ers fac­ing new test

China Daily - - WORLD - By CUI HAIPEI cui­[email protected]­nadaily.com.cn US-Saudi re­la­tions “Win­ners” over case

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.

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