Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s much-anticipated speech before his party group on October 23 was the weeks-long culmination of “must-see TV.”
After Turkish officials had drip-fed both real and fabricated leaks to the media and deliberately created a confused and emotionally charged atmosphere, Erdogan had promised to reveal to the world the “naked truth” behind the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Erdogan’s failure to deliver the promised details prompted The Washington Post to argue that Erdogan appeared “less interested in revealing what really happened to the Saudi journalist than in leveraging the murder for political gain.”
Of course, on Erdogan’s part, this entire maneuver was always about the pursuit of a political agenda. The West would be naïve to believe Turkish officials’ newfound passion for free speech. Turkey is still the number one jailer of journalists in the world.
Far from an exercise in journalists’ safety and rights, from Turkey’s vantage point the Khashoggi affair comes down to diplomatic and financial payoffs.
The economic dimension
Remember that the Turkish economy is still in dire straits. The country’s economic growth, which helped keep both Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power, is reliant on a housing and construction boom funded by cheap dollar-denominated credit.
With the Turkish lira having lost 35% of its value so far this year, this “growth” strategy is backfiring badly. Most Turkish companies cannot afford either the increase in interest payments nor the much higher payment obligation in lira terms now that the exchange rate has depreciated by so much.
Analysts fear for good reason an IMF bailout is on the horizon. Whether Erdogan would agree to one is far from guaranteed.
While eager to avoid the humiliation of an IMF loan, and the genuine economic and political reforms that would require at home, Erdogan and his cronies are desperate for cash.
Erdogan’s latest ploy
The Khashoggi murder has provided Erdogan with the perfect lifeline – to milk Riyadh in exchange for Ankara’s quiescence or agreement with the Saudi official line, while pretending to the world that he will spill the “beans” on the Saudi murder machinery at any moment.
The question, of course, is how much cash the Saudis can spare him. As a matter of fact, for the grand economic renewal pursued by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, they are active in the global loan market as well.
At least the current rise in the oil price helps the Saudis. That may enable them to spend some money on Erdogan’s artful acquiescence.
According to Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), a deal of sorts might already be in place.
Right after Erdogan’s “naked truth” speech, Kilicdaroglu asked the Turkish president whether he had allowed the Saudi suspects to leave Turkey “in exchange for Saudi money.” After all, as Kilicdaroglu made plain, Erdogan had prior knowledge and surely the means to detain them.
Is the evidence for real?
There are still many questions left unanswered. Do Turkish officials have clear evidence of Khashoggi’s murder, or are they bluffing? If they do have evidence, why not release it and humiliate Riyadh and the crown prince?
What we do know is that the Turkish president is a pragmatist, and he will likely be looking to maximize both diplomatic and monetary rewards for the evidence he possesses, real or presumed.
Erdogan’s constant stream of real and fabricated leaks could ultimately serve Saudi efforts to muddy the waters.
What is clear already, however, is that the Khashoggi affair will likely not be a turning point for press freedom, or the rule of law in the Middle East. Rather, it will become yet another illustration of the deeply personal and corrupt power politics that continue to characterize the region.
Editor’s Note: This article was co-authored by John Lechner
Erdogan is a pragmatist, and will likely be looking to maximize both diplomatic and monetary rewards for the evidence he possesses, real or presumed.
The West would be naïve to believe Turkish officials’ newfound passion for free speech. Turkey is still the number one jailer of journalists in the world.
The Khashoggi murder has provided Erdogan with the perfect lifeline – to milk Riyadh in exchange for Ankara’s quiescence.
The Khashoggi affair will not be a turning point for press freedom or the rule of law in the Middle East.