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Cautious Turkey treads warily in Khashoggi case

4 min

Istanbul (AFP)

Turkey is seeking to strike a fine balance in the controversy over the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, aware the aftermath could boost its economy and diplomatic hand but prove highly damaging if the case is mishandled.

The probe strikes at the heart of one of Turkey's most sensitive diplomatic relationships, with its ties to fellow Sunni Muslim heavyweight Saudi Arabia marked by public politeness and deep economic links but also years of rivalry and diverging interests.

For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan "it's a very delicate balance he's attempting to strike," Mujtaba Rahman, Europe managing director for the Eurasia Group, told AFP.

Khashoggi, a regime insider turned critic of the kingdom's current rulers, has not been seen since he walked through the doors of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 for marriage paperwork.

The pro-government Sabah and Yeni Safak dailies, not known to print explosive news that displeases the Turkish authorities, have reported that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate by a Saudi hit squad linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

- Eye on Turkish economy -

But in public, Erdogan and top figures have remained extremely cautious, referring to a prosecutors' investigation and stopping short of pinning the blame on Saudi Arabia.

Yet, if the Sabah and Yeni Safak reports are correct, Turkey possesses an audio recording proving the alleged killing of Khashoggi by a Saudi team. It is a piece of evidence that would allow the kingdom no room for manoeuvre if made public.

Instead, Turkey is keeping up the pressure through a drip-drip leaking of information to loyal media, showing Riyadh that Ankara holds the cards while giving the kingdom time to react.

Analysts say that Erdogan is mindful of not provoking Riyadh, at a time when the fragile Turkish economy is in need of all the economic support it can get after the lira slumped this summer.

According to official Turkish data, almost 586,000 Saudi citizens visited Turkey up to the end of August this year, up from around 373,000 in 2016. Many are coming for more than just tourism, snapping up property and other big investments.

"Given the state of Turkish economy, Ankara might be seeking financial aid from the Saudis," Gonul Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies, told AFP.

- 'Competing for leadership' -

Erdogan has had a complex relationship with Riyadh in the last years that has swung from turbulence to calm and back, but always with a veneer of public respect.

Ties were battered by the ousting of the pro-Ankara Islamist Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 which was cheered by Riyadh. Then, the accession of King Salman to power in 2015 appeared to prompt a warming.

But the Saudi-backed embargo imposed against Turkey's ally Qatar from 2017 strained ties again. This coincided with the rise of Salman's son Crown Prince Mohammed, seen as the driving force of the embargo.

Yet while Erdogan gave full backing to Qatar, even he stopped short of public criticism of Riyadh, calling on the Saudis in July 2017 to behave like the "elder statesman in the Gulf region". While he happily lashed out at NATO allies like Chancellor Angela Merkel, he never once publicly targeted Prince Mohammed.

And in recent speeches, Erdogan has avoided discussing the Khashoggi case altogether. As fresh claims made new global headlines Thursday, Erdogan was in the Moldovan region of Gagauzia, busying himself with the concerns of a Muslim minority in one of the former USSR's most obscure backwaters.

"At a time when Turkey's economy is going through a challenging period, Saudis visiting Turkey and their real estate purchases will remain an important source of forex revenue," said Rahman.

But he noted: "But both countries are on the opposite side of the Qatar crisis, ideological enemies and competing for leadership in the Sunni world."

- 'Outstanding issues with US' -

Turkey is also keeping close watch on its relationship with the administration of President Donald Trump, which unleashed the currency crisis in August by sanctioning Ankara over the detention of a US pastor who was finally released on October 12.

Trump, whose administration had built up close ties with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has also been conspicuously reticent in the crisis although he did warn of unspecified severe consequences for Riyadh if its involvement was proven.

"Turkey is trying to leverage the evidence it claims to have on the alleged killing of Khashoggi to push the Saudis and Americans for concessions," said Tol.

She said despite the release of pastor Andrew Brunson, there were "outstanding issues" in US-Turkey relations, notably a looming fine on Turkish lender Halkbank for busting Iran sanctions.

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