Turkey’s president and the Saudi crown prince will come face-to-face at the G20 for the first time since dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, although neither country has confirmed a bilateral meeting.
The October 2 killing of the columnist in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul has strained their already fraught relationship, even as it set off a storm of international criticism of the Saudi authorities.
Yet, both sides have publicly emphasized their determination to bring the killers to justice.
Khashoggi was a critic of the powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely viewed as the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the order to kill Khashoggi “came from the highest levels of the Saudi government.” While stressing that Saudi King Salman was not behind it, he didn’t point the finger directly at Mohammed.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the crown prince “asked Erdogan via phone if they could meet in Buenos Aires. Erdogan’s answer was, ‘Let’s see’,” in an interview with German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung published Tuesday.
The crown prince’s G20 attendance is a bold effort to force the issue of whether world leaders will work with Saudi Arabia, knowing that working with Riyadh means working with Mohammed, said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
As the Saudis “double down,” Alterman said that Riyadh is also indicating with his G20 appearance that the crown prince is back in the saddle, and the worst is over.
After all, according to US President Donald Trump, “the world is a dangerous place,” in a statement in which he announced Washington’s continued support for Saudi Arabia.
Asked about the CIA’s assessment that Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s murder, Trump said: “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” adding that “We are with Saudi Arabia. We’re staying with Saudi Arabia.”
This week, on his first trip abroad since the murder, Mohammed visited friends in the region – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – and also stop in Tunisia before heading to Argentina.
In Tunis the welcome was not set to be so warm, with hundreds protesting on Tuesday ahead of his arrival. While Tunisia has called for the truth to be revealed, it said the Khashoggi case cannot be exploited to harm the “stability of a sisterly country like Saudi Arabia.”
At the G20, Mohammed will see not only Trump but also other world leaders who have condemned the murder and demanded accountability.
Among them will be countries with whom Erdogan said he has shared audio recordings related to the killing, including the US, Canada, Germany, Britain and France.
Cavusoglu for the first time recounted gruesome details from the tapes, in his interview with the German daily, confirming some of the content which has so far only been leaked by Turkish media.
A forensics doctor is “instructing the others they should listen to music while he dismembers the body,” Cavusoglu said.
“You can tell he is enjoying it,” he said, adding that “he likes to cut up people. It is disgusting.”
The remains of Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, have not been located.
Cavusoglu said that “many consider [Mohammed] to be the culprit,” but also that he couldn’t say more without evidence on who gave the order.
Riyadh has provided various versions of the crime after initially insisting that Khashoggi left the consulate alive.
Turkey, a country where hundreds of journalists and activists are behind bars for alleged anti-government activities, has vowed to uncover the truth behind the murder.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have had a rocky relationship for decades, fuelled more recently by a rivalry over the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise and fall in the Middle East since the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been a main backer of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Many Muslim Brotherhood members fled Egypt for Turkey since the group’s Islamist president Mohammed Morsi was ousted by the military in 2013 after protests against his one-year rule.
Riyadh and its Gulf allies have since supported Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, Egypt’s army chief who became president, giving the country billions of dollars in economic assistance.
The influential Islamist group in the Arab world has also attempted to improve its ties with Iran – Saudi Arabia’s main rival in the region.
In June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic ties and transportation links with Qatar, Ankara sided with Doha, sending in troops and food supplies.
Analysts say Turkey’s expanding military influence has raised fears in Saudi Arabia and among its allies, who see Ankara as attempting to revive its Ottoman influence in the region.
So will Erdogan and Mohammed meet this week? Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But Turkey’s top diplomat said “there is no reason not to” meet the crown prince.