Khashoggi crisis may tip ME power balance towards Turkey

4 November, 2018 12:00 AM printer

ISTANBUL: The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi could alter the power dynamic in the Middle East by strengthening Turkey’s influence at Saudi Arabia’s expense as they compete for leadership of the Islamic world, analysts say, reports AFP.

This certainly appears to be the goal of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the main regional supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia and its allies Egypt and the United Arab Emirates consider a terrorist group.   

The killing inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul by a team sent from Riyadh on October 2 has already severely tarnished Saudi Arabia’s global reputation.

But it is the potential involvement of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the oil-rich Gulf nation’s de facto leader known by his initials MBS, that could permanently damage Riyadh’s influence in the region.

After initially insisting Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed, then saying he died in a brawl, the Saudi regime finally stated he was killed by a “rogue operation” and arrested 18 suspects, some with links to the crown prince.

Analysts say Erdogan could use the ensuing crisis to weaken the 33-year-old prince, even potentially leading to the royal family removing him from power—though that seems unlikely.

“The killing of Khashoggi has proven to be a golden opportunity for President Erdogan to pressure Saudi Arabia and work towards presenting Turkey as the new leader of the Muslim world,” said Lina Khatib, director of Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.

“The Khashoggi crisis is a big geo-political gamble for Turkey and so far it looks like it is playing the game masterfully. But Turkey alone will not be able to push for the removal of MBS. The ball lies in the American court,” she added.

For Erdogan, promoting the Muslim Brotherhood—which Saudi Arabia has sought to marginalise in the Arab world and which was ousted from power and brutally repressed in Egypt in 2013 by current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—is at the heart of this power struggle.

The Turkish leader could also try to extract concessions from Riyadh for its ally Qatar, facing a Saudi blockade backed by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt since 2017.

“I think that Erdogan sees this as an opportunity to push back against a triple entente in the Middle East that opposes his policies. That triple entente is composed of MBS, MBZ’s (Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan) UAE and Sisi’s Egypt,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey Research Program at the Washington Institute.

“These three countries, all Arabs, oppose Erdogan’s policies of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Now Erdogan sees a golden opportunity because MBS is vulnerable.”

But Sinan Ulgen, president of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy, said “it remains to be seen whether Ankara can continue to leverage this conjuncture and turn it into a permanent advantage raising Turkey’s regional influence to the detriment of Saudi Arabia”.

Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said the Khashoggi case was the “latest chapter in Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s ongoing contest over which country is better” to lead the Muslim world.