In another time, in another place, we might never have known about the death of Jamal Khashoggi. In a Saudi consulate, the staff are guaranteed to say nothing. The reason we know so much is that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey, has been willing to tell the world not just what he knows, but what he suspects. It has been clear from the offset that this isn’t just about the death of a journalist but a battle for political leadership of the Islamic world.
On Tuesday, in his first full statement on Khashoggi’s killing, Erdogan said that the perpetrators should stand trial in Turkey, and that everyone responsible should be punished ‘from the highest to the lowest’. It was a warning shot, clearly intended for the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who now has to answer for Khashoggi’s murder. But Erdogan also offered a veiled threat to anyone questioning his own motives in this affair. ‘There has been a campaign of slander and implication [against Turkey] in various media,’ he said. ‘We know who is conducting this and what their purpose is. These attempts on our country’s reputation will not stop us from seeking the truth.’
Seeking the truth has become a dangerous business in Turkey. Erdogan has been making a great fuss about the Khashoggi affair but he’s no champion of free speech and has executed his own press crackdown in a less gruesome but no less enthusiastic fashion than Saudi Arabia. Turkey has the highest number of journalists behind bars of any country in the world. Almost all critical news outlets have been seized by the government or bullied into silence since the 2016 coup attempt. Meanwhile Erdogan’s supporters have gradually expanded their media influence. Earlier this year, a large media group which had long been critical of Erdogan’s AK Party was purchased by a government-allied businessman.
It’s worth remembering that almost everything we know about Khashoggi’s disappearance we know from media tamed by Erdogan. Most of the leaks, from the grisly details of how Khashoggi was carved up with a bone saw, to the latest revelation that a member of the hit squad donned his clothes and walked out of the consulate to make it appear that he was alive, have appeared in the pro-palace pages of Yeni Safak and Sabah. (The latter is owned in part by the brother of Erdogan’s son-in-law.)
The first statement on Khashoggi’s disappearance came from the Turkish-Arab Media Association, which is run by Fatih Oke, a former bureaucrat in Turkey’s press ministry. This ministry has traditionally been used to keep an eye on what foreign journalists are saying about Erdogan, rather than providing us with helpful information, and in June, after Erdogan won his re-election, it was taken under full control of the presidency. In a statement released last week, after Riyadh finally admitted that Khashoggi had died in the consulate, the association extended ‘thanks to our President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who always makes us feel the support he has for us, who manages this whole process with great devotion and diplomacy’.
The association shares a building in Istanbul with various Syrian and Egyptian journalists in exile. Since the start of the Arab Spring, Istanbul has become a haven for a certain type of dissident. Anyone banished from their own country for their connections with the Muslim Brotherhood will find refuge in Erdogan’s Turkey.
From here, these dissidents can freely run Arabic-language radio stations and news websites criticising their regimes back home. As a result, Erdogan is now more popular overseas than in Turkey. He is seen as the leader of a rising brand of political Islam. If you scan social media, you will find scores of Urdu and Indonesian fan pages devoted to him, as well as Arabic ones. In footage of recent anti-Assad demonstrations in northern Syria, Turkish flags fluttered alongside Syria’s opposition flag.
So accommodating is Erdogan of the journalists who subscribe to his politics that two years ago he hosted a group of Syrian media activists for a round table at his palace in Ankara. It is an invitation that he has never once, in the five years I have been working in Turkey, extended to journalists working for western media outlets. One member of the Syrian group at the palace, who dared to post a cheeky selfie on Facebook showing him pulling a funny face with Erdogan in the background, was, as a result, cast out by the community of Muslim Brotherhood activists.
Khashoggi, too, was an open supporter of the Brotherhood — and that is key to understanding Erdogan’s interest in his case. The two men had met on at least one occasion, and Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée had written for a publication edited by members of Erdogan’s court. Just before his death, Khashoggi was preparing to establish himself within Turkey’s circle of Brotherhood exiles. Late last month he bought an apartment in Istanbul with his fiancée, and on his final weekend in London he told other delegates about his plans to set up a news channel in Istanbul.
Erdogan’s own links with the Brotherhood go back a long way but have grown stronger in the wake of the Arab Spring. When the movement seized power in Egypt in 2011, Erdogan saw his chance to position himself as the leader of the new Middle East. This was a direct challenge to Saudi Arabia, the leader of the old Middle East and an avowed enemy of the Brotherhood.
When the Brotherhood government in Egypt was ousted by military coup only two years later, Erdogan’s dream began to crumble. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition — again, Brotherhood-led and based in Istanbul — had collapsed into infighting and ineffectuality. By last year, Erdogan’s only state-level friend in the region was Qatar — another country that backs the Brotherhood. When Riyadh launched its economic war against Turkey over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Doha sided with Erdogan, filling its supermarkets with Turkish products and sending troops on joint exercises.
Then came the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — a ruthless power-grabber who despises the Brotherhood. His appointment as heir to the throne in June last year precipitated Khashoggi’s exile from Saudi Arabia three months later. In March, MBS, by then the most powerful man in the kingdom, publicly described Turkey as ‘part of the triangle of evil’. Erdogan now hopes to reframe the political dynamics across the region by using Khashoggi’s death to undermine the Saudi Crown Prince’s authority.
Khashoggi was a brave and honest critic of MBS, though not of his father, King Salman, nor of the Saudi monarchy more generally. His murder has rightly provoked outrage. But this is about more than one journalist who knew and was saying too much. It is about a huge faultline in the Middle East.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.