Official steps were taken last week to try to contain the fallout from the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October.
Meetings took place after weeks of statements, leaks and various speeches that imply that a settlement may be on the horizon, with Saudi attorney-general Saud al-Mo’jeb travelling to Istanbul to meet his Turkish counterpart Irfan Fidan.
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a news conference in Ankara that the exchange of information with Saudi Arabia was “beneficial” and should continue. He said Saudi Arabia had suggested the visit to Turkey, and he urged Riyadh to conclude the investigations soon.
However, al-Mo’jeb did not provide information about the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body. He visited his country’s consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday, the day after meeting Fidan and a week after Saudi Arabia admitted that Khashoggi’s killing had been premeditated based on evidence presented by Turkey, according to the BBC.
The Saudi authorities have arrested 18 Saudi nationals in connection with the killing, and Turkey has asked for their extradition since it took place in Istanbul.
However, Riyadh has refused, saying the suspects will be tried in Saudi Arabia.
A royal decree has also removed five senior Saudi officials from their posts, including deputy director of intelligence Ahmed Eseri and advisor to the royal court Saud al-Qahtani.
Before al-Mo’jeb’s trip to Turkey, US secretary of defence Jim Mattis met with Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir on the margins of the Manama Dialogue meeting in Bahrain.
Anti-Saudi media reported that the meeting focused on Khashoggi’s murder, while pro-Riyadh media said it focused on proposals for a new Arab Alliance, or what is known as an Arab NATO.
“Both issues were on the agenda,” said Mohamed Saeed Idris, an expert on Gulf affairs and researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “The former because it is a hot topic, and the latter because it is very important for Washington.”
Mattis indicated that he had discussed the Khashoggi case, along with “the need for transparency and a full and comprehensive investigation,” expressing his confidence that the Saudi investigation would take into account material provided by Turkey.
“Turkey with the evidence it has compiled will ensure that there is more than one review of what is going on,” he said. “I am certain the investigation will include the evidence that Turkey has put forward so far.”
Idris said that “the US is being challenged by Russia in the Middle East today, and this cannot be ignored as the background to the investigation. Russia’s presence in the region is unnerving for the US. It has a powerful military in Syria and strong ties with Egypt, and it is marketing its weapons to countries in the region.”
Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have all agreed to buy the S-400 Russian missiles system. Moscow is a partner in constructing nuclear power stations in Egypt and is in negotiations to do the same thing in Turkey.
Russia, one of the world’s top producers of oil, was also visited by several Gulf leaders recently not usually seen in the Kremlin. There is also close coordination in the oil market between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Iran has condemned what it calls “a Russian-Saudi attempt to control” the oil market, something which both sides deny. However, both countries would benefit from US oil sanctions against Iran which will begin on 5 November and will likely raise the price of oil.
“Under these circumstances, Washington will need Riyadh to stand by its side,” Idris said. “[US president Donald] Trump does not have the luxury of abandoning the arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth hundreds of billions of dollars.”
Saudi Arabia is the US’s top customer for defence spending. “Trump said that if he doesn’t sell arms to Saudi Arabia, then it will go somewhere else, implying Russia,” Idris added.
Meanwhile, Riyadh needs a major international ally in the face of its rival Iran in return for participating in the Arab Alliance the US is calling for. According to Idris, the settlement will not only include Riyadh and Washington, but also Ankara, even if with a smaller share.
“Turkey wants a two-stage victory in Syria: first, an end of the support to the Syrian Kurds to ensure their influence does not reach inside Turkey; and second, a foothold in northern Syria such as at Manbij,” he said.
For many years, Turkey under the leadership of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, but al-Assad has now regained control over most of the territory that was under opposition control, and this has forced a rethink on the part of Ankara.
Turkey also has a strong military presence in Manbij in northern Syria, which it wants to turn into a buffer zone.
The Europeans are likely to lose the most in these circumstances, since they have been involved in the internal affairs of many countries under the pretext of fighting corruption and promoting human rights.
Dozens of African countries have turned to China for more generous assistance, and China has contributed more to developing Africa’s infrastructure than decades of colonisation by the West.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Containing the Khashoggi crisis