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Will the killing of Khashoggi be a regional game changer?

The public accusations by Erdogan marks a significant escalation in the simmering dispute between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two regional powers that were at odds well before the Khashoggi affair

Manal Lotfy , Wednesday 24 Oct 2018
King Salman
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman offer their condolences to Khashoggi’s family in Riyadh on Tuesday (Photo: Reuters)
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Almost three weeks since the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that Turkey had strong evidence Khashoggi was killed in a premeditated and “savage” murder on 2 October at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Erdogan’s statements contradicted the version of events offered by Saudi officials. On Sunday Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said the killing of Khashoggi was a “tremendous mistake” and part of a “rogue operation”.

“The individuals who did this did this outside the scope of their authority,” Al-Jubeir told Fox News. “There obviously was a tremendous mistake made, and what compounded the mistake was the attempt to try to cover up. That is unacceptable in any government.”

Al-Jubeir said that Saudi Arabia was taking action to investigate how Khashoggi died and hold those responsible accountable.

On Tuesday, following a meeting of the Saudi cabinet chaired by King Salman, a statement was issued saying Saudi Arabia will hold to account those responsible of Khashoggi’s killing and “those who failed in their duties, whoever they are”.

Erdogan said he was not satisfied with Riyadh’s version of events and demanded the “highest ranking” of those responsible be brought to justice. He also called for the trial of Saudi suspects to take place in Istanbul.

“My demand is that 18 people be tried in Istanbul,” Erdogan said in a speech to lawmakers in Ankara Tuesday, a reference to the 18 people, including security officials, already detained by Riyadh.

He stressed that Turkey wanted answers to key questions, including who gave the orders, adding that “all those who played a role in the murder” should face punishment.

Erdogan said the murder was “premeditated”, planned days in advance according to a “roadmap” executed by a Saudi team sent to Istanbul for the purpose.

The surveillance system at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul was deliberately deactivated, he said.

Erdogan said Riyadh’s suggestion it was a rogue operation “will not satisfy us” and insisted there could be no diplomatic immunity for Khashoggi’s killers.

At the same time, he said he was confident of Saudi King Salman’s full cooperation in the probe.

Though Turkish media have repeatedly said recordings exist proving Khashoggi was tortured before being decapitated, President Erdogan did not refer to the existence of audio and video evidence understood to be in Turkey’s possession.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said “President Erdogan’s statement underscores the fact there remain questions which only the Saudis have the answers to” while UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted he was “deeply concerned” to hear Erdogan describe the Saudi dissident’s murder as premeditated.

The killing has alarmed even Saudi Arabia’s staunchest Western allies.

A UK foreign office official told the Weekly that “there remains an urgent need to establish exactly what happened on 2 October and thereafter.”

The public accusation of “a premeditated murder” by Erdogan marks a significant escalation in the simmering dispute between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two regional powers that were at odds well before the Khashoggi affair.

Aaron David Miller, vice president for New Initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre and a Middle East peace negotiator in many US administrations, says we are witnessing an extraordinary moment in the Middle Eastern politics, characterised by anxiety and uncertainty as two major powers battle it out in an open and brutal dispute.

“It is a reflection on a broken, angry and dysfunctional Middle East. It is a reflection on where the region is today. And it is sad,” he told the Weekly.

The controversy overshadowed the three-day Future Investment Initiative (FII), dubbed “Davos in the Desert”, that began in Riyadh on Tuesday.

The conference convened despite a wave of cancellations from policymakers and business titans following the murder of Khashoggi.

The organisers said they expected deals worth $50 billion to be signed during the gathering which opened amid tight security in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Russian Direct Investment Fund Chief Kirill Dmitriyev, Patrick Pouyanne, the CEO of French energy giant Total and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan were among the speakers in the opening day.

Dozens of executives, including from banks Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, ride-hailing app Uber and Western officials such as International Monetary Fund Chief Christine Lagarde, pulled out of the event.

The cancellations are indicative of the risks Saudi Arabia is facing. Foreign direct investment already plunged to a 14-year low last year, according to research firm Capital Economics.

However, many Western firms have too much at stake to pull out. “Empty chair politics” do not advance human rights, insisted Pouyanne.

Companies from China and Russia have also shown little interest in withdrawing, encouraged by a Saudi message that the country is “looking East” in the aftermath of the West’s reaction to the killing of Khashoggi.

“The high-profile withdrawal of so many American CEOs from the conference certainly presents opportunities for Asian and Russian companies to make a splash,” Ellen Wald, author of the book Saudi Inc, told AFP.

In a sign of US and UK reluctance to damage their relationship with Saudi Arabia beyond repair US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who withdrew from the investors conference, travelled to Saudi Arabia to attend a separate anti-terror finance meeting in Riyadh where Mnuchin met the crown prince behind closed doors for bilateral talks. Meanwhile, CIA Director Gina Haspel headed for Turkey.

US President Donald Trump said he was “not satisfied” with Saudi Arabia’s latest explanation though his administration remained cautiously supportive of Riyadh.

However, the pressure is building. Bob Corker, chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee is insisting on a full investigation by US intelligence, which could potentially be followed by sanctions as mandated in the Global Magnitsky act, a piece of legislation named after a murdered Russian lawyer.

“They can undergo their own investigation, but the US administration must make its own independent, credible determination of responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder under the Global Magnitsky investigation as required by law.”

The administration has 120 days from the day the Senate invoked Magnitsky, 10 October, to present the results of an investigation and a decision on sanctions.

Miller emphasised the need for an impartial investigation. “The only way to know what happened to Jamal inside that building is through independent investigation, either by the United States and the FBI or by a UN investigation.”

He warned, “the situation would be disastrous for US foreign policy if we did not hold the perpetrator accountable”.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Trials of strength

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