Why Erdogan Is Pulling His Punches at Saudi Arabia

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s clear that a speech Tuesday morning by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t break much new ground about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. What’s less obvious is why Erdogan decided not to deliver on his promise to expose the “naked truth” about the killing, especially whatever he knows about the extent of involvement by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The answer lies in the nature of Turkey’s fraught relations with both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Turkey is not only navigating its longstanding rivalry with the Saudis, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Bobby Ghosh wrote on Tuesday, but with Washington as well, and is calibrating how far it can go without overplaying its hand.

Turkey’s response to the Khashoggi killing should be viewed against the backdrop of tensions between Ankara and Riyadh.

Erdogan has recently strengthened his claim on global Muslim leadership, something the Saudi royal family has long considered its own cultural birthright. The Saudis view Turkey as the head of a hostile regional alliance of Sunni Islamists that includes their Qatari adversaries and an antagonistic Muslim Brotherhood movement.

To the Saudis, Turkey’s embrace of Khashoggi represented a challenge: He was preparing to establish a Turkish-based TV station, a series of websites, and a political group based in the U.S. to urge a bigger role for the Brotherhood in the development of Middle Eastern democracy.

That made Khashoggi’s murder an opportunity for Turkey to meet the Saudi challenge by discrediting the crown prince.

But Erdogan faces constraints. This week’s arrival in Turkey of the chief of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel — ostensibly to examine intelligence that CIA operatives have no doubt already thoroughly reviewed — raised the ante for Erdogan.

Haspel was plainly sent to warn the Turks not to go so far as to try to unseat the Saudi crown prince. Doing so would complicate the U.S. balancing act between defending American values and preserving U.S. interests in the kingdom.

Erdogan also needs U.S. cooperation if he intends to secure a financial windfall from Saudi Arabia in exchange for holding back evidence of involvement in the killing. And Erdogan needs U.S. help to ensure that Saudi Arabia doesn’t retaliate for the embarrassment Turkey has inflicted in recent weeks through a campaign of lurid leaks about the details of Khashoggi’s apparent murder.

Most importantly, Erdogan wants to advance his own international rehabilitation. Since a failed Turkish coup in July 2016, Erdogan has cracked down on political opposition and secured virtually dictatorial powers, wiping out the more democratic and institutionalized Turkish political system he inherited and replacing it with his own, individual authority.

Erdogan’s Turkey became notorious for political repression and human rights abuses, including against journalists like Khashoggi. Now Khashoggi’s death gives the Turkish government a chance to present itself as a responsible actor. Erdogan’s domestic and international narrative casts him as a champion of order and legitimacy. The Khashoggi killing is an unearned opportunity to push that line and encourage the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to back his demands for international acceptance as a responsible regional actor.

Erdogan’s restraint on Tuesday reflects his understanding that even if he pushed hard to bring down the crown prince, he would sacrifice other, more important goals. Backing off a bit, by contrast, prevents a complete breakdown with Saudi Arabia and preserves leverage with Washington. At the same time, he can hope to embarrass Saudi Arabia and weaken the crown prince enough to blunt Saudi Arabia’s effectiveness as a regional rival.

As for the crown prince and the Saudi government, they are entirely in damage-control mode, and their main audience right now is Trump.

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

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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