April 1, 2020 | Policy Brief

Turkish Court Indicts Saudi Nationals in Khashoggi Murder

April 1, 2020 | Policy Brief

Turkish Court Indicts Saudi Nationals in Khashoggi Murder

The Istanbul chief prosecutor indicted 20 Saudi nationals last week for the murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul sparked global outrage. The move presents a substantial obstacle to already strained relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which espouse competing visions for the future of the Middle East and the Sunni world.

The Turkish prosecutors indicted former Saudi Deputy Intelligence Chief Ahmad Assiri and former royal aide Saud al-Qahtani as among those culpable for Khashoggi’s murder, though the prosecutors did not say the royal family or Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) were responsible. In 2018, the United States sanctioned al-Qahtani under the Global Magnitsky Act for his role in Khashoggi’s killing and enacted a visa ban against him a year later, but Assiri was not targeted. Saudi Arabia cleared Qahtani and acquitted Assiri.

Turkey’s relationship with the Saudi monarchy was, until the Arab Spring, exceptionally strong. Under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policy of establishing closer relations with the Islamic world, the two countries came to an understanding on their shared apprehensions in the Middle East, such as the need to contain Iran and maintain opposition to Israel, especially following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. That year, the Saudis even awarded Erdogan the King Faisal Prize for his overtures to the Muslim world, a move that would have been unthinkable with Turkey’s staunchly secular previous leaders.

But the Arab Spring caused those friendly ties to deteriorate. Strong disagreements over Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, stemming from his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, drove Ankara and Riyadh apart. In Syria, a reversal of fortunes for the Islamist rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime caused a further divergence of interests, as Saudi Arabia opted to begin rapprochement with the Syrian government, while Turkey continued its belligerent stance.

Turkey’s deepening relations with Qatar led to another turning point. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates broke off relations with Qatar and urged the rest of the Muslim world to follow suit. Instead, Turkey provided aid to Qatar, and the two countries sharply accelerated bilateral ties, effectively cleaving the Sunni Middle East into two competing blocs. The ensuing Sunni split was made all the more volatile by Khashoggi’s murder, on which Erdogan eagerly capitalized by leaking a steady drip of information about what transpired in the consulate, even insinuating that MBS had ordered the killing.

Despite Erdogan’s eagerness to spotlight the Khashoggi murder, Riyadh has refrained from severing relations with Ankara. The crown prince asserted that “as long as there is a King Salman, a Mohammed bin Salman and a President Erdogan,” the two countries would remain friends. Erdogan, for his part, has largely focused his attention on other matters since late 2018, though the indictment indicates that Erdogan is not finished pressuring MBS. In any event, the indictment will be toothless unless Saudi Arabia extradites the 20 nationals, which it is highly unlikely to do.

Given Turkey’s continued disagreements with Saudi Arabia over the situation in Libya, Syria, Sudan, and Iran, the indictment may turn out to be the open declaration of a new, more tumultuous phase in Turkish-Saudi relations. Khashoggi’s murder brought an already faltering relationship to its knees, while the court ruling and continued competition over the wider Middle East might bring about the formal end to the relationship between the two countries. What remains to be seen is how far Riyadh is willing to let Erdogan to push the envelope.

Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Philip Kowalski is a research associate. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Varsha, Philip, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Varsha and Philip on Twitter @varshakoduvayur and @philip_kowalski. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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