By Graham E. Fuller —
The grisly details of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi security goons in their own consulate in Istanbul has riveted global attention like few other recent stories. Not surprisingly, the lurid descriptions of this single sensational case have far greater impact on public perceptions than the deaths of some ten thousand Yemenis—mostly civilians— in Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen—facilitated by Washington and London.
Simultaneously we have the theatrical spectacle of the Erdogan government in Turkey releasing in tantalizing dribs and drabs the apparently documented details of the horrors of Khashoggi’s torture, murder and dismemberment, keeping the story alive. All of this skillfully escalates public revulsion and places Saudi Arabia and its impetuous crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) into a stark spotlight before the world. Saudi Arabia has many enemies in this world; the chickens are coming home to roost.
But what is really going on here? What is Turkey up to?
Pundits love to talk about some “implacable historical confrontation” between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. To buy into this is to miss deeper issues. In reality it is the ideological gulf between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, not Iran, that is more deeply rooted—even if less publicly aired—than the so-called Iranian threat. It is about the future face of the Middle East,
For starters, it was the Ottoman Turkish Empire that undertook to roll back and overthrow the first Wahhabi state to arise in Arabia in the early 19th century that had already rampaged across the peninsula when the Holy Places were under the legal protection of the Ottoman Sultan.
But what are the fissures today? The bottom line is that Turkey represents a modern, rational, institutionalized state still functioning within a democratic order—although its moderate Islamist president Erdogan is now probing the boundaries of what is acceptable in a democratic state. Nonetheless Erdogan has won successive elections, even while playing rough games against opposition parties. It may be harder today than a decade ago to speak of “democratic Turkey” but it is nonetheless a reality in terms of its political parties, elections, political debate inside parliament and in public (though limited in the state-controlled media.) Turkey’s sophisticated electorate, general westernization, the position of women, its advanced economy, levels of education and westernization and long-standing political and social institutions—however much manipulated and abused by Erdogan today—still exist. Turkey’s political sophistication and experience over the longer run will enable democratic practice to prevail.
The point of this is not to praise Turkey’s democratic order today; there is now much to criticize in Erdogan’s personalized and arbitrary management of the country, his arrest of outspoken journalists and purges of police, the courts, and universities. Indeed, if Erdogan had resigned after his first ten years in office, his long list of accomplishments and those of his party would suffice to make him the greatest prime minister in modern Turkish history. Yet—classically—power corrupts and often leads to greater authoritarianism; we now witness Erdogan’s squandering of his own legacy through his own arbitrary and high-handed actions.
But that is not the point. For all of its current abuses, the political and social institutions of even Erdogan’s Turkey scare Saudi Arabia. Turkey has a constitution, maintains the trappings of democracy and elections and political debate in a parliament. All these things are anathema to Riyadh and threaten the very basis of Saudi monarchy. In addition, Erdogan’s party, the AKP, represents a moderate Islamist perspective in the region that stands in near total opposition to the narrow, xenophobic, intolerant and extreme version of Islam—routinely exported—of Saudi Wahhabi Islam. Erdogan’s views are closer to the more modern Muslim Brotherhood—an old and now mainly non-violent party that embraces at least the principles of democratic procedure, elections, and a broad-based electorate that includes non-Muslims. It wins elections. Saudi Arabia loathes the Muslim Brotherhood which they view as ultimately serving to undermine monarchy; indeed political Islam basically has little regard for monarchy which it perceives as lacking in Islamic legitimacy.
In short, the Turkish view of politics and Islam is abhorrent and threatening to the Saudi political order that is based on monarchy and Wahhabi clergy. If any state represents advanced Islamic opinion in this world, it is more likely Turkey and certainly not Saudi Arabia with its near medieval mind-set coexisting alongside its glittering turnkey skyscrapers.
Then we have the anomaly of Qatar. This small Gulf state is also a monarchy and even embraces—at least nominally—Wahhabi Islam, but in a vastly more open and tolerant form than the Saudi version. Qatar, even though a monarchy, also views the Muslim Brotherhood as essentially the face of a more modern future political Islam, far from the Saudi Wahhabi version. And Qatar sponsored and still maintains the pan-Arab satellite TV station al-Jazeera, which revolutionized public discussion of politics all across the Arab world and beyond. Riyadh detests the debates on al-Jazeera and the threat that such open discussion of regional politics poses to autocracy. Turkey, for all its present warts, represents the future of Muslim governance in the region while Saudi Arabia languishes far in the past, apart from the formidable power of its wealth.
Saudi Arabia aspires to leadership of the Muslim world, but apart from its massive wealth and technical “custodianship” of the Muslim Holy Place, its sterile and arthritic culture offers very little to anybody.
Qatar too finds itself in close sympathy with the Turkish government. And with MbS’s rash decision to try to bring to heel or overthrow the independent-minded government of Qatar, Turkey lined up with Qatar and dispatched Turkish troops there to guard the border against possible Saudi military invasion.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey fundamentally represent rival forces jockeying for influence in the future Syrian political order in post-civil war Syria.
Sunni Qatar and Sunni Turkey both deal widely with Shi’ite Iran. Yet Saudi Arabia claims that Iran is the source of all evil and instability in the Middle East, and shares ever closer ideological views with Israel—on purely cynical basis of enemy-of-my-enemy. Sadly Washington has bought into this Israeli-Saudi narrative on Iran.
With the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Ankara has been happy to exploit the scandal and turn the screws on Riyadh. Ankara’s staged leaks of detailed grisly documentation of the event has thrown Riyadh badly off balance—which strengthens the hand of Ankara and nearly everybody else including Washington in being able to pressure the Saudi Kingdom.
Iran of course is the alleged sinister threat constantly trumpeted by Riyadh—and Israel—a policy designed ultimately to bring the US into a war with Iran. Here too Riyadh more fundamentally fears Iran as an evolving democratic state in an Islamic context; Iran’s elections and fairly transparent politics are all closely followed by the outside world, they matter. Basically Iran will preside over a functioning democratic state far earlier than Saudi Arabia ever will; Saudi Arabia indeed lacks any institutional foundations for such an open political order. In addition the Saudis fear their own oppressed Shi’ite minority, yet deep Shi’ite alienation becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy under onerous Wahhabi oppression. Above all, Wahhabi Islam detests Shi’ite Islam in principle—even as Wahhabism is hostile to nearly all other schools of Islam as well. So Iran constitutes for Riyadh the ideal target that can be opposed on religious and ideological grounds while avoiding denunciations of Iranian democratic structures, elections, or analysis of the oppression of Saudi Shi’ites.
This is why Ankara is happy to embarrass Riyadh in its murder of Khashoggi; the two countries are far more rivals than allies in the Muslim world and will remain so. Yet Ankara still does not wish to break with Riyadh entirely either, since Saudi financial resources might still just be useful to Ankara down the road.
As the geopolitics of the world changes—particularly with the emergence of new power centers like China, the return of Russia, the growing independence of Turkey, the resistance of Iran to US domination in the Gulf, the waywardness of Israel, and the greater role of India and many other smaller players—the emergence of a more aggressive and adventuristic Saudi Arabia is not surprising. Indeed we might even say it is overdue in a state so long marked by conservative and cautious foreign policy. And so for Washington “managing the Gulf” becomes an increasingly impossible task with every passing year. Too many other significant players have stepped into the game with their own vital interests—even as the US has reduced its international clout to a primarily military role —a trend that well precedes Trump.
As we follow the lurid news about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it’s important to realize that this ugly incident represents just a small piece of the much bigger geopolitical game playing itself out in the Gulf.
*Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his first novel is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan;” his second one is BEAR. (Amazon, Kindle)