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Turkey and Saudi Arabia: Engaged in a Journalist-Snatching Alliance?

A Saudi journalist’s disappearance challenges fragile Middle Eastern pragmatism.

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Takeaways


  • Many fear that prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared in Istanbul, was kidnapped. It would not be the first time that Saudi Arabia has forcibly repatriated its critics.
  • A Saudi detention or nabbing of Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul without at least tacit Turkish cooperation would deeply embarrass Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
  • Saudi-Turkish cooperation in Syria helps Turkey create a sphere of influence in areas of Syria near Turkey’s border.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey differ on some of the Middle East’s most important divides. While Saudi Arabia is leading an effort to isolate Qatar regionally and on the global stage, Turkey backs Qatar.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are closer in their approach towards Syria, but Turkey hosts members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has been banned in the kingdom and is at the center of its conflict with Qatar.

Turkey also opposes U.S. sanctioning of Iran that has not just been embraced, but emphatically pushed by Saudi Arabia.

A new development

But now there is a new development – the disappearance in Istanbul of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

A critic of the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Khashoggi is one of Saudi Arabia’s most venerable journalists, a liberal-minded man if there ever was one in that country.

He was editor of Al Watan, but was eventually forced to resign and subsequently became head of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal’s short-lived pan-Arab television venture based out of Bahrain.

Mr. Khashoggi, known for his close ties to the ruling family, went a year ago into self-exile in Washington, after being banned from publishing, which he feared was a prelude to arrest. He disappeared this week during a visit to the Saudi consulate.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey have so far commented on Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. A Saudi Press Agency report said an unidentified Saudi national accused of having signed cheques that bounced had been deported to the kingdom on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by Interpol. The agency gave no further details.

Not the first time

While it is unknown whether the agency was referring to Mr. Khashoggi, many fear that he may have been kidnapped. It would not be the first time that Saudi Arabia has forcibly repatriated its critics.

A Saudi detention or nabbing of Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul without at least tacit Turkish cooperation would deeply embarrass Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and likely spark a further deterioration of Turkish-Saudi relations.

If Turkey was complicit, it would bear testimony to increasing results-oriented cynicism on both sides.

The German dimension

It would also put a damper on Germany. Heiko Maas, the country’s foreign minister, has just moved to make up with the Saudis, after a period of frosty relations.

Given the fact that the German government is concerned about detentions of German journalists in Erdogan’s Turkey, the Khashoggi case is an uncomfortable reminder of the profound illiberalism of both Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Conclusion

The nabbing of Mr. Khashoggi threatens Saudi-Turkish cooperation in Syria that matters a great deal to Erdogan and goes well beyond relief and development aid. Saudi support helps Turkey create a sphere of influence in areas of Syria near Turkey’s border that are controlled by Turkish troops and administered by Turkey.

That may be one reason why Turkey has so far responded to Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance with restraint, giving Saudi Arabia an opportunity to clean up a mess of its own making.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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