What Turkey Stands to Gain From the Khashoggi Investigation

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan might not be able to permanently sideline the Saudi crown prince, but he could extract other concessions that bolster his own position.

Turkish President Erdoğan and Saudi King Salman meet in Istanbul in 2016.
Turkish President Erdoğan and Saudi King Salman meet in Istanbul in 2016. (Murad Sezer / Reuters)

Updated at 4:20 p.m. ET on November 16, 2018.

Saudi authorities said Thursday that they charged 11 people in connection with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Five of the 11 were charged with murder. Turkey’s response? It’s not enough.

The journalist’s killing has cast Turkey, which under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stifled dissent, in an unusual role—that of a defender of human rights and a free press. So what does Turkey hope to get out of this? Two main things: the undermining of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and an end to the Riyadh-led blockade of Qatar.

Since Khashoggi disappeared last month, Erdoğan has put on a masterful performance: He has ensured that the specter of culpability for the killing looms over MbS; maintained deference toward Saudi King Salman, MbS’s father; and reset relations with President Donald Trump through the release of a jailed American pastor.

The Saudi prosecutors’ narrative could diminish some of Turkey’s pressure on the crown prince. According to the version of events they laid out on Thursday, a 15-man team sent to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul had orders to return Khashoggi to the kingdom. But he resisted, resulting in his murder and dismemberment, the prosecutors said. This action, they said, was not authorized by top Saudi officials. The version of events contradicts almost every previous account offered by the Saudis, who had said the death was accidental. But it is also at odds with the Turkish narrative that Khashoggi’s killing on October 2 was premeditated.

“We find all those steps positive, but insufficient,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Thursday following the Saudi announcement. That pronouncement is hardly shocking, but there is irony in Turkey assuming the role of champion of press freedom and human rights. This week, a Turkish court dismissed the case against Ayla Albayrak, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had previously been accused of promoting terrorist propaganda. More than two-dozen journalists have been jailed by the Turkish government.*

Under Erdoğan, the government has crushed dissent and dismantled the free press. Yet on the Khashoggi case, it has emerged as the clearest voice for justice—clearer even than the West, which traditionally has championed such causes but in this case is standing by its ally MbS. The Trump administration announced economic sanctions on 17 Saudis with alleged links to the killing shortly after the Saudi announcement. A French foreign-ministry spokeswoman called the Saudi announcement a step “in the right direction.”

Following Thursday’s charges, Erdoğan’s primary goal of sidelining MbS appears to have stalled. “I think he overplayed his hand aiming to undermine MbS,” Soner Cagaptay, who studies Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said.

Still, the Turkish president has cards left to play: Saudi Arabia’s Western allies are so keen on the Khashoggi story going away that they are likely to offer Ankara incentives to stop pointing the finger at MbS and accept the results of the Saudi inquiry. (Turkey itself has called for an international investigation into the incident.)

Ankara can also extract major political concessions from the Arabs. Erdoğan, who has portrayed himself as a leader of the Muslim world, has another goal: that of Islamic unity. “If he gets this as part of the bargain with MbS, he might let him walk away,” Cagaptay, the author of The New Sultan: Erdoğan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey, said.

One way to achieve that unity is through an end to the Saudi-led Arab blockade of Qatar. Turkey, along with Iran, has supported Doha during the more-than-year-long embargo imposed on Qatar by its fellow Arab states for, among other things, its alleged support of Islamist groups. Many of those groups are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which most Arab states regard as a terrorist organization, but which Erdoğan openly supports because of its espousal of political Islam. Qatar, which remains one of Turkey’s major financial benefactors, says it supports all groups in the region because it takes into account political realities on the ground.

Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu’s remarks that the Saudi prosecutor’s actions were “positive, but insufficient” leaves the door open for a compromise—one that ends the blockade of Qatar and includes a tacit understanding from Arab states that Ankara will continue to support groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. Any such agreement would almost certainly boost Erdoğan’s standing in the region. For a country that is struggling economically and, until recently, was feuding with all its major allies, this is no small thing.

* This article originally stated Ayla Albayrak had been sentenced and jailed by the Turkish government. Albayrak reportedly left Turkey before the case was resolved.