Saudi Arabia is facing an unprecedented crisis where both its international image and reputation are greatly tested.
It has found itself in the centre of an international storm with serious implications in terms of the Middle East and a possible regional realignment that would benefit its main competitor Turkey and its archenemy Iran.
For the last seven and a half years, these three regional powers have been working via the ups and downs of the major upheaval known as the “Arab Spring”, either through international alliances or regional and Arab ones, to gain predominance and position themselves to be the leading arbiter of the future Middle East.
The competition was quite fierce and it was conducted through third parties from within the Arab world.
Turkey became the leading protector of all the armed groups rebelling against the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, many of which also benefitted from Saudi Arabian largess and political support.
All these groups were Sunni. Whereas Iran worked through Arab Shia groups like Hizbullah of Lebanon, which deployed thousands of its fighters in Syria. For many in the outside world, Syria had become the main battleground for a showdown between Sunnis and Shias.
If the Saudis were supporting these rebels in Syria, the only reason was to bring down the pro-Iranian regime in Damascus as a first step in a grand Saudi strategy of containing Iranian expansionism in the Middle East, the Gulf and in Yemen.
In the latter, the Saudis vowed never to let another Hizbullah emerge, this time on the southern border of Saudi Arabia.
The Turks, while sharing the Saudi objective of getting rid of the Syrian president, had other master plans that ran counter to the national interests of Saudi Arabia.
Ankara has seen its drive to chase Al-Assad out of power as a move on the road to regional hegemony through the enabling of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is one of the main reasons why the strange assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a pro-Muslim Brotherhood Saudi dissident if not an active member, came as heaven sent to Turkey.
From the first day of the reported disappearance of the Saudi journalist on 2 October, Ankara drip-fed the international media, and particularly American networks like CNN, with gruesome details of a “murder” that happened inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
For almost 20 days, no Turkish official spoke publicly and officially on the circumstances of the “murder case”. They purposely kept public pressure on the Saudi government constant, to put it on the spot.
In the unfolding drama, it was quite clear that the Turkish government has been using the “murder case” as a means of blackmailing the Saudis for some time to come.
The first Turkish official who spoke publicly on the case was the Turkish president on Tuesday, 23 October.
Earlier on the same day, the Saudi cabinet, chaired by King Salman Abdel-Aziz, stressed that it “will hold to account those responsible of the killing (of the Saudi journalist) and those who failed in their duties whoever they are”. It was an attempt to pre-empt the speech of the Turkish president.
The speech had been preceded by a media campaign meant to ensure the largest international audience possible.
People were expecting something new. But the speech was significant for what it did not say, something that proved what many have already concluded that Turkey would use the murder case to advance on the regional chessboard while trying to overshadow Saudi influence in the Middle East.
In his speech, Turkish president did not divulge anything earth-shaking. He called for an independent investigation that he said could not be possibly conducted in Saudi Arabia, and demanded that all suspects in this case be tried in Turkey.
The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, turned down this request on Saturday, 27 October.
The main theme of the speech was the indirect repudiation of the official Saudi version of events leading up to the assassination.
The tenor of the speech was that the murder was premeditated, and not a “botched” interrogation as the first official Saudi statement on the case pointed out.
He emphasised that Ankara “would not remain silent [and] would take every step necessary for justice to be done”.
For sure, it is a long path before justice is done and till then the Turks will keep putting pressure on the Saudis in the Middle East and in Washington, and in some leading European capitals, to drive the message home that Turkey is their only reliable ally in the region.
On the other hand, the Turks would not hesitate to question, behind closed doors, the credentials of the present crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed bin Salman, as the next Saudi monarch. Such a message won’t be lost on some ears in the West.
In this regard, it was a bit surprising to listen to the Saudi crown prince saying in the conference dubbed “Davos in the Desert” last week that some quarters are trying to drive a wedge between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
He stressed that these attempts would fail as long as the present political leaderships in both Riyadh and Ankara are in power.
In the days and months to come, Ankara will leave no stone unturned to put Saudi Arabia on the defensive across the Middle East, and to present itself as the more reliable and trusted leader of the Muslim world, in an attempt to supersede Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran in this context.
It would be aided by a confluence of events such as the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran effective 4 November, and the fragile economic situation in Egypt.
The geopolitical implications of the murder in Istanbul on 2 October will be felt for years to come.The winners are not the Arabs, unfortunately.
On Saturday, 27 October, a four-power summit took place in Istanbul. It was called the Syria Peace Summit hosted by Turkey and attended by the Russian and French presidents, Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
An Arab crisis debated in a non-Arab country that has aimed to become the leading regional power and to set the parameters of peace in Syria with Russia, France and Germany.
In normal times, at least Egypt and Saudi Arabia, should have been present at the negotiating table. In normal times, such a conference should have convened in Cairo or Riyadh with the presence of representatives of the Syrian government.
But these are not normal times — neither for Saudi Arabia, nor for Egypt.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The geopolitical implications of a strange assassination