At first glance, the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi from the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul is just the latest crisis to strain relations between the kingdom and Turkey in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011.
Yet, like elsewhere in the region, things are more complicated than they initially appear.
Saudis and other Gulf Arabs still flock to Istanbul and purchase property throughout a country viewed as having one foot in Europe and another in the Mideast. The kingdom remains one of the top foreign investors in Turkey, providing crucial hard currency amid a crisis in the Turkish lira.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support of Islamist groups clashes with the stance of Gulf sheikhdoms that view groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as threats to their hereditary rule.
Erdogan also maintains links to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s Mideast archrival, and Qatar, a nation now boycotted by the kingdom and three other Arab nations over a political dispute.
All this together requires Ankara to maintain a careful balancing act.
“Turkey is at the center of an economic storm and has very few friends to turn to for help. Ankara-Washington relations are at an all-time low. Turkey-Russia relations are vulnerable and relations with Europeans are complicated,” wrote Gonul Tol, the director of the Turkey program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
“To avoid further problems, Turkey has been trying hard not to further strain ties with Saudi Arabia,” Tol said.
That hasn’t been helped by the Oct. 2 disappearance of Khashoggi, a contributor to The Washington Post whose writing helped interpret to the West the opaque machinations of the Saudi royal court.
Khashoggi wrote columns critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 33-year-old son of King Salman, and had lived in the United States over the last year in a self-imposed exile.
Turkish officials fear a Saudi team of 15 men killed and dismembered the writer at the consulate. They have yet to publish any evidence of him being slain, though surveillance footage around the consulate shows a convoy of vehicles with diplomatic license plates leaving the Saudi Consulate for the consul’s home in Istanbul a little under two hours after Khashoggi’s arrival.
Reports in Turkish media and the Post suggest Turkish officials have both video and audio of the killing, something The Associated Press has been unable to confirm.
Saudi Arabia meanwhile maintains that the allegations against it are “baseless,” but has yet to offer any proof that Khashoggi simply walked out of the consulate and disappeared into Istanbul, despite his fiancée waiting for him outside.
The crisis comes at a sensitive time for Erdogan. The Turkish lira has depreciated by close to 40 percent against the U.S. dollar since the start of the year. Inflation has spiked. Part of that rests on the massive loans taken out by the country during a construction boom under Erdogan, which helped fuel his popularity.
President Donald Trump accounts for some of that pain as well. Trump in August doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports, as well as sanctioned two Turkish officials, over the imprisonment of American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, who faced terrorism charges. Turkey responded by putting its own tariffs on U.S. imports and vowed to boycott American electronic goods.
On Friday, however, a Turkish court freed Brunson after nearly two years in detention, allowing him to leave the country for America. That may help ease tensions between Turkey, a NATO ally since the Cold War, and the U.S.
For Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the most recent problems take root in the 2011 Arab Spring popular uprisings that swept the region.
After protesters in Egypt drove out autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian voters elected Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative, pan-Arab Islamist group. Turkey supported Morsi, as did the tiny, energy-rich nation of Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula.
The Egyptian military overthrew Morsi in 2013. The country’s new leader, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, declared the Brotherhood a terrorist group and conducted a campaign of mass arrests targeting its members. Saudi Arabia and its close ally, the United Arab Emirates, similarly declared the Brotherhood a terrorist group and arrested its members.
Turkey, and its cosmopolitan city of Istanbul in particular, has since become a haven for Brotherhood members and others fleeing regional crackdown. That didn’t change, even as Erdogan has conducted his own crackdown on political opponents in the wake of an unsuccessful coup to topple him in 2016.
Turkey has served as a vital link to Qatar amid a Saudi-led boycott targeting the tiny country for over a year. Turkey stationed troops in Qatar and Turkish goods filled Doha supermarkets.
Turkey also had served as an outlet to Iran while it faced economic sanctions before the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. After Trump’s decision to withdraw America from the accord and re-impose U.S. sanctions, it will become such an outlet again.
For their part, Saudis continue to travel to Turkey and buy property, enjoying the country’s close link to Europe and its conservative Sunni Muslim outlook. Over the last 15 years, money from the Persian Gulf has accounted for some 9 percent of total foreign direct investments in Turkey, with Saudi Arabia believed to be a majority part of that.
That has seen Erdogan take a carefully calibrated approach to the Khashoggi crisis, allowing anonymous security service leaks to advance Ankara’s allegation that Saudi officials killed the journalist while himself saying he hopes for cooperation. A joint Saudi-Turkish investigative team has begun exploring Khashoggi’s disappearance this weekend, which marks the writer’s 60th birthday.
“Turkey is fully aware of the economic situation it finds itself in, and the problematic wider region it engages heavily in,” said H.A. Hellyer, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“A complete disruption of relations with Riyadh is not what it needs, nor what it wants,” Hellyer said. “Which is presumably why Ankara is giving Riyadh a way to minimize damage via this joint working group.”