Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s speech on Tuesday failed to advance the narrative of what really happened to the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite high expectations.
But it did send one unequivocal message to Saudi Arabia: You chose the wrong country for a murder.
Addressing his Justice and Development Party, Erdogan issued a series of forceful statements accusing Saudi agents of planning a “savage” murder, demanding that the kingdom reveal the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body, and calling on Riyadh to hand over the suspects.
In doing so, Erdogan repeatedly emphasized that the killing took place in his country — albeit on diplomatic Saudi property — and said it was therefore up to his country to uncover the truth.
It squares with Erdogan’s strongman rhetoric, which has long emphasized the importance of national security.
On Tuesday, Erdogan lamented the delay before Turkish authorities were able to search the Saudi Consulate.
It was two weeks before Saudi Arabia allowed Turkish investigators to search its Istanbul consulate, where Khashoggi was last seen entering and where Saudi Arabia later acknowledged he had been killed.
Before Turkish investigators were allowed access, cameras caught cleaning crews moving boxes of cleaning supplies into the building.
“Because of diplomatic immunity, we couldn’t go into the building initially,” Erdogan said. “This has become a matter for discussion. What kind of steps can a host country take in a similar situation in the future?”
Saudi Arabia’s ‘personal affront’ to Erdogan
Erdogan has for years cracked down on his country’s military, intelligence, and judicial officials, in the name of national security. This grew more intense after members of the Turkish armed forces attempted to launch a coup against him in July 2016.
For this reason Erdogan most likely saw the Khashoggi killing in Istanbul as a personal affront to his authority in Turkey.
“What we’re actually seeing is that Erdogan took this as a personal affront that Saudi Arabia would carry out this action on his soil,” Lisel Hintz, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced Studies, told Business Insider earlier this week.
“Turkey doesn’t want to take the blame for allowing this to take place on its territory.”
And by repeatedly asserting Turkey’s territorial authority in his speech, by challenging Riyadh’s version of events at every turn, and by specifically pinning the blame on Saudi agents, Erdogan is sending a message to the kingdom.
Erdogan declared a state of emergency for two years after the failed coup, under which 107,000 people were dismissed from their public-sector jobs, according to the BBC. It ended just three months ago.
Numerous police officers, members of the military, journalists, and nongovernmental organization workers were accused by the state of acting “against national security.”
Through Erdogan has led a strong campaign against the death of Khashoggi, who often criticized Saudi policies, the Turkish president may have actually made his country the world’s biggest jailer of journalists.
‘A message, very carefully put, to the Saudi king’
Another significant omission from Erdogan’s speech was the name of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely suspected of orchestrating Khashoggi’s killing.
Instead the Turkish president referred to King Salman, the Saudi crown prince’s father, who was mentioned at least six times in his Tuesday speech.
Erdogan said he had spoken with King Salman on the phone about potentially sharing intelligence on Khashoggi’s death, suggesting that he was not yet ready to assign personal responsibility to the Saudi monarchy.
Dr. HA Hellyer, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London, told Business Insider that Erdogan on Tuesday may have been making a veiled jab at the Saudi crown prince.
“Erdogan’s message today seems to have been less ‘I will reveal all’ and more a message, very carefully put, to the Saudi king,” Hellyer said.
“He blatantly doesn’t want to make an enemy of who will choose the next king of Saudi — but he does want to marginalize MBS,” he added, referring to Crown Prince Mohammed by his initials. “The absence of the latter’s name in the speech is very telling.”
Experts previously said Turkey might be trying to extract some kind of concession from Saudi Arabia through its intelligence leaks and bold public statement implicating Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi’s death.