Tuesday 16 July 2019

Turkish president has outwitted Saudis at every turn over killing

In the know: Jamal Khashoggi had been a colleague of one member of the squad accused of killing him. Photo credit: Johnny Green/PA Wire
In the know: Jamal Khashoggi had been a colleague of one member of the squad accused of killing him. Photo credit: Johnny Green/PA Wire

Con Coughlin

Short of declaring all-out war on the House of Saud, it is hard to imagine a more effective way for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to inflict so much damage on the global standing of his Saudi rivals than his adroit handling of the Jamal Khashoggi affair.

From the moment the journalist disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month, Mr Erdogan has proved himself to be a master manipulator in terms of handling the global media coverage. The steady drip-feed of revelations about the grisly fate Mr Khashoggi is believed to have suffered has been skilfully designed to cause the Saudis maximum discomfiture.

It goes without saying, given the blatant lies and misinformation emanating from Riyadh, that the Saudis have hardly covered themselves in glory. Having initially insisted that Mr Khashoggi left the consulate of his own volition, the Saudi version of events has enjoyed a number of deeply unconvincing manifestations, from the suggestion that the portly and out-of-condition Mr Khashoggi was killed in a fist fight with Saudi officials, to the latest proposition, that he was the victim of a "rogue" intelligence operation.

From the outset, the Saudis' primary objective has been to protect their all-powerful Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the 33-year-old dynamo who is in the process of overseeing the most ambitious reform programme undertaken in the country's history.

Mr Erdogan's goal, by contrast, is the irrevocable destruction of the crown prince's reputation.

To judge by the current state of play, Mr Erdogan is winning. For, no matter how hard the Saudis have tried to control the Khashoggi narrative, they have been severely undermined at every turn by the wily Turkish president.

Mr Erdogan is well-acquainted with the persecution journalists can suffer in the Muslim world, having presided over a wide-ranging crackdown against any Turkish journalist or media organisation foolhardy enough to criticise his autocratic rule.

Consequently, he now enjoys almost undisputed control over Turkey's major media outlets, an extremely valuable tool in his relentless assault on his Saudi rivals. Indeed, Mr Erdogan and his willing cohorts in the Turkish press appear to have succeeded in convincing the entire world that Mr Khashoggi was subjected to the most appalling acts of butchery from the moment he entered the Saudi complex in Istanbul. But they have been less willing to release the actual evidence. The Turkish media has dropped heavy hints about the existence of audio and video records, no doubt acquired by listening devices planted by Turkish intelligence. Indeed, Mr Erdogan promised to provide "the full details" about Mr Khashoggi's demise.

Yet, when the Turkish leader yesterday gave his long-awaited address to members of parliament from his ruling party, no mention was made of the damning audio and video tapes the Turkish authorities are said to have in their possession. Nor was there any direct mention of the Saudi crown prince, whom the Turks have unofficially suggested was directly involved in authorising the journalist's assassination.

Instead, the Turkish leader sought to increase the pressure on Riyadh by claiming Mr Khashoggi's death was a "political murder" that had been planned in advance by Saudi officials.

But Mr Erdogan would be well-advised not to write off his regional rivals just yet.

The Saudi royal family are a resilient bunch, and have a proven track record of overcoming extreme adversity - the assassination of King Faisal in 1975 and the September 11 attacks are just two examples that come readily to mind.

And, irrespective of the damage that they have suffered over recent events in Istanbul, Mr Erdogan should understand that there is every likelihood that the Saudi royal family will be able to prevail, once again.

Irish Independent

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