The speech today by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan turned out to be somewhat underwhelming. It had been expected that he would provide at least some of the evidence that Turkish investigators have accumulated on the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But he did not do so, choosing instead to reject the Saudi account of the killing and pointing the finger at the ‘highest ranks’ of the Saudi government.
Contrary to expectations Erdoğan’s first update on the three-week-old case did not officially reveal the existence of audio and video evidence understood to be in Turkey’s possession.
Erdogan did reveal that on the day before Khashoggi was killed, Saudi agents arrived in Istanbul and began to scout locations, including the Belgrad Forest nearo Ankara and the city of Yalova to its south. Police have subsequently searched both areas for evidence of Khashoggi’s remains.
The president did not name the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who it is alleged was probably aware of and possibly even ordered the silencing of his prominent critic, but observers were in little doubt to who his repeated mentions of “highest ranked” referred.
The gaps in the speech also suggest Erdoğan has more cards to play in the evolving diplomatic crisis.
Why he held back on the evidence issue is not clear. Maybe he wants to drag out the suspense even longer. It turns out that Khashoggi’s connection with Turkey is stronger than I had thought. Although he is a Saudi citizen, he has Turkish ancestry, has a Turkish fiancé, and had bought a home in Turkey and planned to settle down there. All this has meant that the Turkish public has had great interest in this case.
But also yesterday, the head of the CIA Gina Haspel flew to Ankara to speak with Erdoğan and she may have urged him not to reveal the evidence, especially if it is gruesome. Haspel herself is a notorious torture lover who has overseen ghastly torture by the CIA and she may have asked him to not reveal the information in an effort to prevent the ouster from power of bin Salman, a close friend of Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Meanwhile, in his latest public relations effort to escape opprobrium, bin Salman had a meeting with the son of Khashoggi. Since the son has been prevented from traveling outside Saudi Arabia for the past year due to the government not liking his father’s criticisms, it is likely that he could not refuse this blatant photo-op.
The rot that this murder has exposed is not limited to Saudi Arabia. Ryan Grim of The Intercept points out that another key player has managed to escape scrutiny and that is the UAE’s ambassador to Washington Yousef Al Otaiba. Al Otaiba hosts fancy parties for the Washington elite that includes both Republican and Democratic party bigwigs and smoothed the way for bin Salman’s rise. It turns out that Otaiba’s email account was hacked and reveal his cordial relationships with the Washington elite and media figures.
The email was part of a cache of correspondence stolen from Otaiba’s Hotmail inbox, either by hackers or by somebody with access to the account. The contents were distributed to the media by a group that calls itself Global Leaks, which claims to be made up of independent whistleblowers, though its critics charge that it’s a front for the government of Qatar, which is a rival of the UAE.
Grim says that they reveal how determinedly Otaiba cultivates powerful players.
And on Tuesday, life goes on as normal for United Arab Emirates Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, the diplomat who lobbied Washington heavily to support the crown prince’s internal efforts to disrupt the line of ascension and put himself next in line for the throne. When MBS — as the crown prince is known — was given his title in June 2017, and as he went on a ruthless power grab in the months that followed, the Washington foreign policy establishment nodded along and touted him as a reformer.
Otaiba’s dinner parties are a thing of legend in the Washington social scene, occasionally prepared by Wolfgang Puck himself. The exclusive events are part of the UAE’s strategy to buy influence in Washington, by assiduously flattering and pampering the most influential members of the elite. Otaiba, beginning in 2015, used those relationships to smooth the path for MBS, Saudi Arabia’s defense minister at the time, to eventually become crown prince. Otaiba’s boss, Mohammed bin Zayed, had determined that it would be to the UAE’s benefit if MBS seized control from then-Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef.
The UAE believed that with MBS in power, the smaller nation would be able to influence the bigger one.
While the focus on Saudi Arabia is essential, we should not ignore the fact that the UAE is playing a major role in destabilizing the region, including the ghastly war in Yemen and the attempted isolation of Qatar. That role deserves much more scrutiny than it is currently getting.