Erdogan says Khashoggi murder was planned, rejecting Saudi claim

Jamal Khashoggi. (AFP)
Jamal Khashoggi. (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected Riyadh’s account of the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, saying the murder was the result of a meticulously planned plot and calling on the Saudi king to hold all culprits to account.

“We have strong indications that this murder wasn’t the result of a sudden incident, but rather, was the product of a planned operation,” Erdogan told ruling AK Party lawmakers at a meeting at the parliament in Ankara. All responsible, including people “at the very top,” should be brought to justice and blaming the killing on “a few security and intelligence" officials will satisfy no one, he said.

The president’s comments, while shedding little additional light on the unvarnished details of the case, were his first official allegation of murder. Erdogan refrained from implicating King Salman, saying he had no doubts about the elderly royal’s sincerity and referring to him as the protector of Islam’s most holy sites, a sign of respect. But he pointedly didn’t mention the power behind the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who’s been ruthlessly consolidating power at home while crafting an image abroad as a moderniser and reformer.

Changing Narrative

Erdogan scoffed at the initial Saudi denials that Khashoggi was killed, and assailed the since-fired Saudi consul-general for trying to deflect suspicion by inviting reporters to the consulate building, where he reportedly opened closet doors to show that the journalist wasn’t there.

“A cover-up of a savagery like this would be an affront to humanity’s conscience,” Erdogan said. He asked a number of pointed questions about the incident, including why the Saudis took several days to open the consulate’s doors to outsiders and the location of Khashoggi’s body, which has yet to be revealed.

“It shouldn’t even cross anyone’s mind that this matter will be closed without all of these questions being answered," he said.

Official Admission

Khashoggi went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to get a certificate necessary for his marriage in Istanbul. MBS initially said the journalist left the building unharmed but that narrative gradually changed, culminating in an official admission of Khashoggi’s death in the hands of Saudi operatives more than two weeks later.

Erdogan has repeatedly said that he is following the case of Khashoggi, an insider-turned-critic of Saudi rulers, for humanitarian reasons. But there’s also a larger power play behind the scenes.

Through a series of strategic media leaks by anonymous officials, it’s been said that Turkey has evidence the Washington Post columnist was tortured and dismembered by Saudi assassins who flew in on private jets. On Tuesday, Erdogan said the team that flew to Istanbul in three separate airplanes included generals as well.

The leaks have implied that Turkey possesses recordings that are being used to extract concessions from the deep-pocketed Saudis, while also using them to undermine the kingdom’s claim to being a reliable partner for the West.

Crown Prince

At stake are power dynamics both in Saudi and in the region. The incident has, in particular, raised fresh questions about the methods and character of Prince Mohammed, 33. Some influential once-supporters including Senator Lindsey Graham are now openly calling for him to be removed from power. Dozens of global business leaders have cancelled appearances at a planned forum in Riyadh. The prince’s supporters in Saudi Arabia say he’s firmly in control.

One senior official in Erdogan’s government said Turkey has never believed the hype about the prince, also widely known as MBS. The Turks have also privately warned that Washington risks public embarrassment if it is seen under President Donald Trump to be attempting to help whitewash the circumstances around Khashoggi’s death.

That’s one reason why Erdogan may have been treading carefully in his speech, said Sinan Ulgen of EDAM, the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul.

‘By not opening his cards, Erdogan is accumulating political capital that could help him win Trump’s support,” he said.

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