Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Tuesday for Saudi Arabia to turn over 18 suspects linked to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi so they can be tried in Turkey.
“These 18 people should be tried in Istanbul,” he told members of his AK Party in an address to parliament in Ankara.
Local security officials had evidence the murder was planned. “Pinning such a case on some security and intelligence members will not satisfy us or the international community,” he said.
Erdogan also shifted attention to a local collaborator identified as aiding the operation. “Who is this local collaborator? You are obliged to reveal the identity,” he said.
Notably, the Turkish leader did not point the finger at the highest level of the Saudi monarchy, referring to King Salman as the “esteemed king” and also making no mention of his son, the powerful heir to the throne Mohammed bin Salman.
But the crown prince’s close aides are among the 18 and such a trial could implicate the powerful heir. The demand presents the king with a dilemma over how far to go to contain the crisis and protect the kingdom’s future.
In Riyadh, business leaders and Saudi officials likely breathed a brief sigh of relief after Erdogan’s speech, which was tame compared to the unadulterated details he had threatened to reveal and which might have implicated the de-facto Saudi ruler.
Erdogan back in the saddle
Just one month ago, President Erdogan was at odds with his NATO ally the United States, ranting about an economic war on his country, and seemingly pushed into the Iran-Russia corner. With the authority assumed during the Khashoggi crisis, he has reemerged as a leader on the global stage.
The murder of the prominent Saudi commentator in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has allowed the Turkish leader to present himself as a warrior for justice and even a champion of the press — despite Turkey’s status as the top jailer of journalists in the world.
The Turkish media, brought under the heel of the state since the unsuccessful coup attempt that threatened Erdogan’s rule in July 2016, has served as a messenger for a steady drip of leaks since Khashoggi’s disappearance on October 2. Erdogan and other top officials remained out of the fray, circumspect and diplomatic about the need for Saudi cooperation.
The Trump administration, under bipartisan fire for its bet on the brash Saudi crown prince and unable to ignore the scope of evidence in the Turks’ possession, was forced to demand an explanation. Saudi Arabia reversed course on Saturday, from total denial of knowledge over Khashoggi’s fate to a new narrative of a consulate “brawl” and intelligence officers acting outside their mandate and without the knowledge of the crown prince — a narrative almost immediately discarded as implausible by world leaders and US lawmakers alike.
In the wake of the Saudi admission, Erdogan seized the opportunity to dig into his regional rival on the eve of a flagship investment conference, raising the prospect of spilling incriminating details.
In the run-up to his speech on Tuesday, Turkey upped the anticipation over its contents. On Monday, CNN was granted exclusive access to surveillance camera footage that traced the exit of a man wearing Khashoggi’s suit and pants, but not shoes, out of the consulate on the day of the murder — viewed as a sloppy attempt at a body double. And in the hours before the speech, a Turkish outlet broadcast a video purporting to show Saudi consular officials burning papers on the consulate premises.
In Riyadh, Saudi business leaders and undeterred attendees from Russia and Pakistan — including PM Imran Khan — rallied for the Future Investment Initiative’s second-annual forum amid a widespread shunning by Western executives.
Top Saudi businesswoman Lubna Olayan chose to address the elephant in the room in her opening remarks. “I want to tell all our foreign guests that the terrible acts reported in recent weeks are alien to our culture,” Olayan said, adding that she was sure the kingdom would “emerge stronger” from the crisis.
But even as the Saudi energy minister took the microphone, all eyes were on Ankara.