The complicated Turkey-Saudi Arabia relationship

I mentioned in an earlier post my puzzlement as to why Turkey and its president were taking such an aggressive role in revealing information about the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi after he entered a Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. There has been a steady release of information from Turkish authorities saying that they had information that Khashoggi was murdered and his body dismembered by a hit squad that came from Saudi Arabia, and this had led to worldwide outrage.

It would have been quite possible for the Turkish authorities to wash their hands of the whole affair by saying that since Khashoggi was a Saudi national with permanent residence status in the US, and since the disappearance took place within the confines of a consulate that holds diplomatic status, this was something to be settled by the US and Saudi Arabia. The fact that Khashoggi’s fiancé was Turkish could be dismissed as irrelevant.

In trying to understand Turkey’s actions, Nader Habibi, a professor of Practice in Economics of the Middle East at Brandeis University, traces the ebbs and flows of Turkey-Saudi relations over time and arrives at the following conclusion.

Western media have mostly portrayed Turkey’s handling of the latest incident involving Khashoggi’s disappearance as an indication of deteriorating Saudi-Turkey relations.

That might not, however, be the case. The Turkish government is trying to balance multiple conflicting goals in the way it handles this crisis.

On the one hand, it is trying to show a full commitment to discovering what happened and has put enormous pressure on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by leaking details of his government’s involvement. But I believe it is also mindful of preventing a further escalation of tensions with Saudi Arabia, which remains a major investor in Turkey.

Meanwhile, Turkey is struggling with a severe financial and external debt crisis at the moment and is desperately trying to attract foreign capital. A withdrawal of Saudi investment or tourists could worsen the crisis.

Erdogan’s initial hesitation in pointing the finger – leaving it to “anonymous officials” – and his call for a joint investigation gave Saudi leadership time to come up with a response strategy, which appears to be blaming “rogue killers.”

In this he seems to share President Donald Trump’s interest in giving Saudi Arabia a face-saving way out of the crisis. The U.S. and the Trump administration also have a lot on the line in their relationship with the Saudi government.

Interestingly, one result of this ordeal, which has plunged Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the West into chaos, may be more cooperation and better ties between the U.S. and Turkey, which now have a great deal of leverage over the kingdom.

No one said that understanding the politics of the Middle East was easy.


  1. naturalcynic says

    Blaming the execution of Khashoggi on “rogue elements” brings out a problem -- somebody in the security apparatus is going to publically have his head chopped off according to Saudi practice. Of course the whole affair could have been a mistake by MbS in saying something like Henry II purportedly said about Thomas Becket “will no one rid me of this meddlesome …”.

  2. lanir says

    Today we have “rogue elements”. The Republican white house says we should be supportive of Saudi Arabia in these trying times.

    On 9/11 we had a rogue prince and a rogue fortune supporting him. The Republican white house suggested blaming whole countries for the actions of rogue elements that existed within them while also somehow shying away from doing the same with Saudi Arabia because magically that situation was different.

    And here I thought the Reagans were batty with their convenient forgetting and their astrology.

  3. cartomancer says

    One cynical thought that occurs to me is that the unusual zeal of the Turkish authorities for uncovering and investigating this horrific act might actually be part of the Saudi plan. The Turkish government may be in on it.

    After all, the reason a horrible tyrant would torture and murder a critical journalist is to dissuade others from criticism. If the gruesome act is kept secret and nobody knows what has happened then such a killing loses its power to dissuade. You want others to know what lies in store for them if you catch them -- and if there’s a thin shell of barely-plausible deniability for PR purposes then so much the better. Covering up such an act effectively completely negates the reason for doing it -- you want the gruesome details to leak out.

    Of course, it might just be that the Saudi authorities are utterly depraved and vile people who torture and kill for their own demented ends and don’t care whether they send a message or not. Which is no better.

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