20 January 2019

The Explainer: Erdogan, Khashoggi, Gulen, & MbS

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has brought intense focus on Turkish leader Recep T. Erdogan's campaign against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. I will explore a couple of major reasons behind the purpoted angst of the Turkish leader.

Who was Jamal Khashoggi? Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian journalist and an insider in the Saudi royal court. He fled to the U.S after running afoul of
Jamal Khashoggi
the current royal administration in Saudi Arabia. A vociferous critic of the Saudi Arabian royal house, especially the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, he was a columnist for the Washington Post newspaper and head of an Arab news channel.

On 2 October 2018, he visited the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to collect documents pertaining to the dissolution of his marriage to a Saudi Arabian woman; the documents were necessary for him to get married to his Turkish fiancée. He was murdered inside the consulate by Saudi Arabian intelligence officials. Till date, no trace of his body has been found.

Read Who is Mohammad bin Salman?

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has since thrown West Asia into turmoil. The Khashoggi saga has embroiled Saudi Arabia and Turkey in a war of words, with the U.S. squeezed between its two important allies. The following are the major players in the Khashoggi saga: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, Iran, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey directly implicated Saudi Arabia of carrying out the murder on its soil, even pointing a finger at the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for his involvement. Turkish President Recep T. Erdogan claimed the possession of
Recep T. Erdogan (Source: from Wikipedia)
unimpeachable evidence of the involvement of the Saudi Crown Prince, suggesting that the order for the murder “came from the highest authorities in the Saudi administration”.

Why did the Turkish President get so worked up about the murder of a Saudi dissident? The answer to this seemingly distasteful question lies in the ‘great power’ ambitions of the two countries.

We know that Saudi Arabia is the de facto leader of the Muslim World; however, Turkey, under Recep T. Erdogan, wants to become the centre of the Muslim World, just like the Ottoman empire was before its eventual collapse in 1922. Erdogan, an Islamist, has a grand vision of becoming the voice of the Muslim World, and he has made no effort to conceal his ambitions.

Erdogan is a firm supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian extremist organization with a wide support base in the Muslim World. The Muslim Brotherhood is an anti-monarchy, pro-Sharia group. The Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt through its political party in 2012, a development that rang alarm bells in the capitals of the monarchies in the Muslim World.

The anti-monarchy, pro-Sharia core ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood raised the hackles of the Saudi monarchy who felt threatened by the hardcore Islamist who was now the president of Egypt, a neighbouring country. Alarmed by the spectre of the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Arabia royal house instigated the Egyptian army to oust the Muslim Brotherhood from power and take over the country. Thus, in July 2013, barely a few months after coming to power, the Islamist President of Egypt was ousted and jailed on charges of terrorism.

The Saudi Arabian involvement in the ousting of the democratically elected government in Egypt angered Erdogan, a die-hard supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi came in a blessing for him to put the Saudis on the mat. He leaked evidence of the involvement of the Saudi Crown Prince in the Khashoggi murder case in a calibrated manner; in fact, the method was so effective that it has been called “death by a thousand leaks”.

Saudi Arabia botched its response to the Khashoggi murder saga; from firmly denying its involvement to calling it a rogue intelligence operation without concurrence of the royal house, the Saudi Arabian government came across as confused and unprepared for the massive backlash from the international community.

There is another reason behind Turkey’s shrill campaign against Saudi 
Arabia: Fethullah Gulen. Gulen, a friend-turned-foe of Erdogan, lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. He runs a social and charity organization engaged mostly in education activities. His organization is widely popular across Turkey, with millions of members, with thousands of them in influential positions in the administration.

Erdogan accused Gulen of instigating the July 2016 military coup. Thousands of 
Fethullah Gulen
his followers were arrested while another 1.5 lakh were fired from their jobs in the administration, including in the military. Turkish jails are full of Gulen’s followers with allegations of vendetta flying thick.

Erdogan has demanded the extradition of Gulen from the U.S., a request Washington has repeatedly turned down, citing lack of credible evidence from the Turkish government.

It is believed that Erdogan is using the Jamal Khashoggi issue as a bargaining chip: Erdogan will stop badgering the Saudi Royal House (i.e., Crown Prince MbS) if the U.S. hands over Gulen to Turkey.

Why will the U.S. agree to this arrangement? A major reason could be the extraordinary pressure from Saudi Arabia on Donald Trump; Trump sees MbS as an important cog in the U.S. policy in the region.

If you have been following the Jamal Khashoggi saga, you would have noticed that the noise from Turkey against MbS has subsided considerably; maybe the Gulen factor is at play. We do not yet know.

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