An attendee holds a mobile phone decorated with an image of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president. (Photographer: Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg)

What Does Erdogan Want From the Saudis?


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Earlier this week, I wrote about how the selective leaking of gory details from the Jamal Khashoggi investigation was hurting Turkey’s credibility. Here’s a consequence I had not anticipated: They’ve made Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s much anticipated speech a damp squib.

It’s likely that the speech was watched by the largest international audience Turkey’s president has ever had, not least because he promised to reveal the “naked truth” about the murder of the Washington Post columnist. As it turned out, he revealed very little that we didn’t already know from the steady supply of lurid snippets from Turkish officials ever since Khashoggi disappeared into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Erdogan merely confirmed what most already suspected: That the murder was not, as the official Saudi narrative has it, a mistake as the result of fisticuffs between Khashoggi and his interrogators — nor, according to a second Saudi story, suffocation from a choke-hold. The Turkish president said the killing was premeditated, but provided no evidence for this assertion. He asked the same questions we all have: Who ordered the murder? Where is the body? And he called on King Salman bin Abdulaziz to send to Istanbul the 18 officials that Saudi authorities have detained in connection to the killing, so they can be tried under Turkish law. This last bit was pure political theater. Erdogan knows the king will do no such thing.

Since Erdogan said so little, it’s inevitable that much of the discussion about his speech will focus on what he didn’t say. The president never once mentioned Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, even though Turkish officials have said (and an investigation by the New York Times has corroborated) that several of the men who allegedly participated in the murder have connections to the prince.

There has been bad blood between the two men, so Erdogan was expected to let off some verbal volleys in the direction of Prince Mohammed. In Riyadh, the prince was conspicuously absent from the opening of the Future Investment Initiative, his heavily promoted event, leading to speculation that he was watching Erdogan’s speech. If so, he heard nothing that would cause him fresh alarm.

In Istanbul, there has been fervid conjecture that Erdogan wants to use the Khashoggi affair to weaken the prince, but that he may yet make a deal with the Saudis that would allow the royal family to save face. It’s easy to see what Turkey could want from Saudi Arabia: A cash injection to revive its flagging economy; a withdrawal of Saudi support for Kurdish militias in Syria (Turkey regards them as terrorists); and an easing of pressure on Qatar, Turkey’s ally. Erdogan’s speech did nothing to end the speculation that he’d be holding out for one or more of these things.

“Nothing will remain secret,” Erdogan had promised a couple of days ahead of his speech. The naked truth is that the president has revealed nothing that was secret.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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