The strategy behind Erdogan’s ‘openness’ with journalists

The strategy behind Erdogan’s ‘openness’ with journalists
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After weeks of denying involvement in Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance, Saudi Arabia finally admitted that the Washington Post contributor was “murdered” at its Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2. The official line coming from the oil-rich kingdom was that Khashoggi was killed at the hands of “rogue” Saudi operatives, and not on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose power is nearly absolute.

Yet, the “rogue” killer theory, initially floated by President Donald Trump, was quickly undermined, as Turkish officials provided journalists with information about the 15-member Saudi hit team that investigators believe to be responsible for Khashoggi’s death. Just hours after President TrumpDonald John TrumpActivists highlight Trump ties to foreign autocrats in hotel light display Jose Canseco pitches Trump for chief of staff: ‘Worried about you looking more like a Twinkie everyday’ Dershowitz: Mueller's report will contain 'sins' but no 'impeachable offense' MORE tried to throw the crown prince a lifeline, Turkish officials provided the Washington Post with scanned images of passports for seven of the Saudi men — the same day that U.S. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoGOP-controlled Senate breaks with Trump on Saudi vote Hillicon Valley — Presented by AT&T — Officials warn of threat from Chinese spying | China blamed for Marriott hack | Trump open to intervening in Huawei case | FCC mulls ending merger ban on 'Big Four' networks | California floats tax on texts Russia plans to pull bombers from Venezuela on Friday, White House says MORE arrived in the kingdom to meet with King Salman and the crown prince, known as MbS.

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Reading between the lines, the inference is clear: Turkey was trying to knock down any explanation the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia concocted that would explain away Saudi Arabia’s and MbS’s involvement in Khashoggi’s death.

This was not the first, nor the last, time that Turkish investigators openly provided key information to reporters about Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s death. A week earlier, two Turkish newspapers with close ties to the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan identified names and released photos of agents linked to Saudi Arabia’s security forces. Turkey released the tail numbers of the planes that carried the Saudi team, and then released photos of Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a “frequent companion of MbS,” showing him entering the Saudi consulate just hours before Khashoggi arrived.

Even after Saudi Arabia changed its official story and admitted Khashoggi was murdered, Turkey continued to leak embarrassing information, including video footage of a body-double parading around Istanbul in Khashoggi’s clothes.

It is a curious turn of events to see President Erdogan’s administration be so forthcoming with information — especially to journalists. Turkey is as hostile to the press as any country in the world today. Freedom House, which tracks press freedom around the world, has labeled Turkey as “not free” since 2014. In recent years, hundreds of Turkish media outlets have been closed by the Turkish government, and many more journalists imprisoned.

International journalists in Turkey haven’t fared much better. In 2017, the Wall Street Journal’s Istanbul bureau chief, Dion Nissenbaum, was jailed for several days for simply re-tweeting a photo that President Erdogan’s government didn’t like.

So has Turkey now embraced the idea of a free press? Or is something else at play?

“Turkey’s willingness to steadily provide crumbs of important information about Jamal Khashoggi's murder is an effort to check Saudi Arabia's regional influence,” said Holly Dagres, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and editor of the IranSource blog. “Every time the Saudis try to pin the incident on rogue units or deflect responsibility, Turkish officials release information that corrects the course pointing back to MbS.”

The personal rivalry between Erdogan and MbS is relatively new but is rooted in a longer rivalry between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

President Erdogan rose to power with the promise of reviving Ottoman culture, reinvigorating the sluggish Turkish economy and reestablishing Turkey as the center of the Islamic world. He embraced the Muslim Brotherhood and was an early supporter of the “Arab Spring” that swept across the Middle East in 2011. Erdogan’s vision for the Middle East was one where political Islamic groups, such as his Justice and Development Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, ruled in place of religious monarchies.

But Erdogan’s “new” Islamic world came at the direct expense of the ruling families in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain — all of which feared the growing demand across the Arab world for political freedom and really didn’t appreciate Erdogan stoking discontent with region’s hereditary regimes.

In Syria, Erdogan and the Arab monarchies had the same initial goal — remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power — but they differed on what should replace the Assad regime. Still, for the most part, they coordinated efforts to remove Assad from power, but the tension of what or who would replace him has remained.

Following President Trump’s surprise election in 2016, Erdogan watched Saudi Arabia’s new brash crown prince successfully woo Washington, cultivate ties with Israel, and build a new Arab coalition in the Middle East that tried to divide the region into two spheres — those against Iran and everyone else.

Mohammad bin Salman has promoted himself as an energetic reformer determined to launch a grand modernization of Saudi Arabia. Actual reforms have paled in comparison to the salesmanship of the reforms themselves. But MbS has succeeded, with help from Israel and the United Arab Emirates, in steering the Trump administration’s foreign policy in a nearly singular focus toward confrontation with Iran and preservation of the old Arab rulers.

Turkey, which shares a border with Iran and views the Saudi-Israeli-UAE alliance as a threat, has refused to join the anti-Iran coalition.

Until Jamal Khashoggi’s death, this new Saudi-led, Israeli-backed alliance seemed unstoppable and left Turkey, with its economic ties to Iran and aversion to the ruling Arab monarchies, on the outside looking in.   

Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi appears to have provided Erdogan a perfect opportunity to try to undercut this growing alliance and knock MbS down a peg or two on the world stage.

Conor M. Powell is a freelance journalist and has covered the Middle East for nearly a decade, including as Jerusalem correspondent for Fox News.