Since Jemal Khashoggi walked in to the Saudi Embassy in İstanbul on October 2 and failed to emerge there has been a flurry of speculative, explanatory and analytical articles from the global media. This original piece – written for New Cold War by Dr. Efe Can Gürcan before the weekend’s developments – offers an analysis of the current state of play between the US, ME and Turkey in the wake of the killing.
By Efe Can Gürcan, Oct 20, 2018
Saudi Arabia has hogged the headlines in the global media since Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murderat its Istanbul consulate. Arguably, the public will never know the whole truth about the ulterior motives and complicity underlying the Khashoggi affair. What is more easily discernable, however, is the global political context in which this affair took place; so too its possible repercussions for world politics.
The general picture of the Khashoggi affair features three important actors: Turkey, where Khashoggi’s disappearance took place; Saudi Arabia as the main suspect; and the United States as Saudi Arabia’s closest “ally”. It would therefore be useful to investigate this affair by reference to these actors.
Growing Rifts Between Turkey and Saudi Arabia
At present, Turkey is suffering the grave consequences of its so-called “neo-Ottomanist” foreign-policy adventurism, which has gradually turned the Turkish state into a terror-exporting entity led by an archaic Sultan and backed by shady religious fraternities. An example of Turkish terror exports is Turkey’s efforts to fuel the sectarian violence in Syria and active support for jihadist Sunni Turkmens along with Nusra terrorists, who have massacred Alawite communities and pro-Assad forces, until the Turco-Russian rapprochement in 2016. Since 2011, Turkey has been aspiring to gain greater autonomy in its quest to build a new empire and amplify its hegemony in the Islamic world, through military interventionism and increasing support for Islamist movements. These aspirations are strongly embodied in Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and in the growing rift with Saudi Arabia, another claimant to hegemonic leadership in the region.
Erdoğan’s regime has developed a closer relationship with Qatar, which is known for its pro-Muslim Brotherhood stance and close ties with Iran. Even though Qatar is not among Turkey’s main economic partners, it is particularly relevant to point to an over 4067% rise in Turkey’s exports to Qatar in the period 2002-2017, from $15,572,109 to $648,914,967. Qatar also provided as much as 65%of foreign direct investmenttoTurkeyoriginated from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries in the period 2006-2016. Prior to the Khashoggi affair, Qatar pledged to invest $15 billion in Turkey.
Following the 2017–18 diplomatic crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Turkey boosted its exports to and military presence in Qatar. Shortly before Khashoggi’s disappearance, moreover, the Emir of Qatar’s gift of a luxury plane to Erdoğan hit the headlines in the Turkish press. Equally important in the deterioration of Turco-Saudi relations is Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Russia and Iran as well as these countries’ collective commitment to deepen their energy cooperation against US sanctions and to replace the US dollar with domestic currency in international trade (this took place between August and September 2018, i.e. shortly before the Khashoggi affair).
One should note that Khashoggi was not an ordinary journalist. Not only was he part of a wealthy Saudi arms-dealing family; he also worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Saudi intelligence. He was acquainted with Osama bin Laden, but he grew ideologically committed to the Muslim Brotherhood, as different from al-Qaeda’s style of extremism. Upon Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) purge in 2017, Khashoggi fled Saudi Arabia for the United States. His personal security was in greater jeopardy as a Muslim Brotherhood supporter and critic of MBS.He ended up in Turkey, a strategic base for many Muslim Brotherhood exiles. It is known that Khashoggi was also friends with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and others from his political circle.
From several angles, therefore, Khashoggi’s murder in Istanbul would have sent a personal message to Erdoğan and a clear warning to dissidents harbored by Turkey.
Meanwhile, by publicizing the Khashoggi affair, Turkey could further undermine regional Saudi hegemony and possibly use this situation to gain financial leverage in its efforts to relieve the effects of its current economic crisis.
Mohammed bin Salman’s Recklessness and the Saudi Support for Kurdish Forces
MBS’ recklessness has been a major source of concern for the international community. In this connection, the Khashoggi affair could be seen as just another link in a chain of events, including Prince Sultan bin Turki’s abduction and the disappearance of several other dissidents. The detention and forced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri during his visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017 also exemplified the Saudi regime’s recklessness. This event has heightened the already existing tensions in the Middle East.
Furthermore, the deterioration of Turco-Saudi relations can also be seen in Saudi Arabia’s $100 million contribution to Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, which was promised shortly before the Khashoggi affair.
Donald J. Trump and US Imperialism
The dominant role of US imperialism in consolidating MBS’s brutal rule as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince has been explicitly addressed in Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Wolff also notes that the Trump administration’s support for MBS has not been welcomed by certain elements of the US security apparatus. Generally speaking, the fragmentation of this apparatus in the Trump era (due to essential foreign-policy disagreements) could be said to have facilitated, if not directly influenced, Khashoggi’s disappearance. It is relevant here that although Khashoggi has been a crucial asset for American intelligence, he has also been a vocal critic of the Trump presidency.
Just as US imperialism has failed to control Erdoğan’s foreign policy since the Syrian conflict, MBS – another leader whose ascendance owed a great deal to active US support – seems to have spun out of direct Western control. This is vividly illustrated by the Hariri affair (in reaction to which France called for Hariri’s release from captivity) and the August 2018 diplomatic dispute with Canada, which started with Canada’s denunciation of two female activists’ detention in Saudi Arabia. Another case in point is the US-Saudi dispute that surfaced prior to the Khashoggi affair. Despite Trump pressuring Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production, hence reducing oil prices, to alleviate the negative effects of Iranian sanctions, in July 2018 the Saudis unilaterally decided to do the opposite, in parallel with their desire for higher prices. The question now is whether the Western powers will take advantage of this convenient murder by increasing pressure for concessions from Saudi Arabia, or even with a new “palace coup” to protect their geopolitical interests in the longer term. Equally important is how the Khashoggi affair will influence the public opinion about the Western-supported Yemen offensive against Iran, which could find itself in an advantageous position in this developing conjuncture. In fact, the Yemen tragedy had been largely overlooked and overshadowed by the Syrian conflict, but it has already developed into a greater controversy following the Khashoggi affair. Consequently, Western powers’ ability to contain Iran by sustaining the Yemeni conflict could be severely undermined. In such case, one cannot but think whether the responsibility of the Yemen tragedy will also be thrown to Saudi Arabia’s shoulders by Western powers.
Overall, the Khashoggi affair exemplifies the inevitable collapse of the US global strategy and the dissolution of the US-led system of imperialist alliances. US imperialism has failed to keep its key proxies (including Turkey and Saudi Arabia) in check. It has lost in Syria; failed to effectively contain Iran; and failed to intimidate Russia. Saudi Arabia – which is currently passing through one of the most dangerous periods of instability in its recent history – was key to ensuring a definitive US victory over these rivals. And the jury is still out on Yemen.
Dr. Efe Can Gürcan (PhD in Sociology, Simon Fraser University, SFU/MSc in International Studies, University of Montréal) teaches international studies and sociology at SFU. He has published over a dozen of articles and book chapters on international development, international conflict and cooperation, and social movements, with a geographical focus on Latin America and the Middle East. His recent books are Neoliberalism and the Changing Face of Unionism and Challenging Neoliberalism at Turkey’s Gezi Park. His latest publication addresses the political-ecological factors leading to the emergence and spread of the Syrian conflict.