The Reckoning of The Turkish-Saudi Rivalry

Historian Vijay Prashad takes apart the Khashoggi murder and relates it to the deep-rooted ideological and historical conflict between Turkey and Saudi Arabia

The Reckoning of The Turkish-Saudi Rivalry

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

This week we’ve learned of more riveting details of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2. Also this week Gina Haspel, the director of the CIA, flew to Turkey, where she was presented with evidence, mainly an audio recording, capturing the brutal murder of the journalist at the consulate. We were told that on her return from Turkey she briefed the president of the United States.

One big question that is outstanding in all of this is why is Erdogan, the president of Turkey, so invested in exposing the Saudis, and more specifically, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? The answer lies in historical detail; Turkey-Saudi relations dates back to the formation of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Now, the Muslim Brotherhood was formed in Egypt in 1928. Then, a few years later, there was a historic meeting that took place between King Abdul Aziz al Saud and the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, in 1936.

Now, to explain this lineage to the present I’m being joined by Vijay Prashad. He’s the executive director of Tricontinental Institute for Social Research. His most recent edited version, volume, titled Strongmen: Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Trump, Modi, is published by OR Books. Good to have you with us, Vijay.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, I understand that Gina Haspel, who is apparently fluent in Turkish, arrived in Ankara. Now, relations between the two states here- I mean the U.S. and Turkey- has been rather stressed since the coup against Erdogan took place in July of 2016. Now, will this newfound cooperation, mainly over the investigation into Khashoggi’s death, change the current relationship that has been stressed until now?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Gina Haspel was in Ankara because to some extent it’s important to, I think, note that the Erdogan government in Turkey doesn’t particularly care for the government of the United States, meaning Mr. Trump and his cabinet. They’ve had great differences over a number of issues. But there is a kind of infrastructural connection between the secret services of Turkey and the United States, between the militaries of Turkey and the United States, which is why he asked for Haspel, for the CIA, essentially, to come to Ankara and view the footage, and so on. So there is this, which is that Turkey has had its own tensions with the United States which has intensified around the failed coup against Mr. Erdogan’s government a few years ago.

But this is only a part of the story. I mean, the real story- I think important story to ask- is why is Mr. Erdogan, why is Turkey so incensed by the killing, the murder, of one journalist, when Turkey, after all, is in some ways the country with the highest per capita number of journalists in prison? What makes this journalist somebody special when there are so many thousands of journalists sitting in Turkish prisons?

I think here the question is that this is not about freedom of speech or about journalism. This is a question about a long-standing problem between two flanks in West Asia. Two political flanks. One of them led by Saudi Arabia, which is a flank which has a very considerable amount of support in the other Gulf Arab states, in Jordan. In one half of the government in Libya, in Egypt and so on. And the other flank, which is led by Turkey and Qatar. And that is the flank of the Muslim Brotherhood. And I think these two sections have been at it against each other for, at least publicly, for at least the last two years. And I think this is what the killing of Mr. Khashoggi is about; less about, you know, the question of freedom of speech, or the outrage of the murder of a journalist, and much more about this mini Cold War between Turkey and Qatar on one side, and Saudi Arabia on the other.

SHARMINI PERIES: And take us back in history about this relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia, in particular, and where is all of this coming from, Vijay?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s an interesting problem that Saudi Arabia faces. You know, Saudi Arabia for a very long time has made the argument that a Muslim country has to essentially be ruled by a monarchy. It cannot have a republic. This is an old argument that the Saudi royal family has made. Of course, this argument doesn’t fit at all, because there are many countries with a very large number of Muslims. You know, the largest country, the largest population of Muslims is in Indonesia, and it’s not a monarchy. You know, Pakistan is either the second or third largest after India. Also not a monarchy. So there is no reason for Muslim majority states to be monarchies.

But this is an argument that the Saudis have made. It’s an argument that they’ve lost even in their own region, essentially, on two grounds. One is when the Iranian Revolution took place in 1979, the Iranians created an Islamic republic, which was a direct attack, ideological attack, on the ideas of the Saudi kingdom. But much older than the Iranian Revolution was the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Now, the Muslim Brotherhood was an organization largely of professionals who would argued for a kind of Islamic republicanism, not monarchy.

But the Saudis have had a very interesting and complicated relationship with the Brotherhood. When the Brotherhood were prosecuted in the government, by the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Many of the intellectuals came to Saudi Arabia, where they became important professors at Saudi universities. In fact, you know, some of them were the professors of Mr. Khashoggi, of Osama bin Laden, and others. Mr. Khashoggi was himself, you know, drawn into the web of the Muslim Brotherhood. That was where his allegiance was. And it is as a Muslim Brotherhood supporter that he cultivated a very close personal friendship with Mr. Erdogan, who also comes from the Muslim Brotherhood tradition.

So this debate that Saudi Arabia has faced around the question of the monarchy and Islam is, I think, a fundamental existential question for the Saudi monarchy. And it has always had a problem with the states in the region that have defended, that have been a part of the Muslim Brotherhood orbit. And here the states are, of course, Qatar, Turkey, and for a very brief moment the government of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. Morsi, himself a figure of the Muslim Brotherhood, comes to power after the Arab Spring. And it’s essentially Saudi money that comes in to destabilize that government and bring General Sisi to power. And of course, Sisi is a very close ally now of Saudi Arabia.

So I think it’s important to understand this Muslim Brotherhood versus Saudi Arabia conflict which has been ongoing for almost a century in the region. And it is what I think really is drawing Mr. Erdogan to continue this campaign against Saudi Arabia. I mean, he smells blood in the water here. The Saudis have done something which he can make, I think, very serious political capital with.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Vijay, talk a little bit more about the relationship of Jamal Khashoggi to Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood. Because in the popular press, in the- well, I should say in the mainstream press, the fact that Khashoggi is from Saudi Arabia doesn’t actually address this issue that you’re raising now.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, as I said, Saudi Arabia is a very complicated society. It’s not as simple as people make it out to be. You know, there’s been complex currents in its history. At one point I think it’s important to remember that the oil minister of Saudi Arabia was a Marxist, in the 1950s. It was he who made a connection with the Egyptian minister of hydrocarbons, and the minister of hydrocarbons from Venezuela. And they created OPEC. I mean, he comes from a left background. There was an attempted palace coup from the left inside Saudi Arabia. There are many currents inside the kingdom. One should not see it as some sort of monolith, homogenized monolith. It’s a complicated place.

And in that complexity, you have somebody like Mr. Khashoggi who’s a journalist, old childhood friend of Osama bin Laden, who traveled to Afghanistan during the time when bin Laden was lionized by the West for his contribution to the war against the leftist government in Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. Mr Khashoggi was also, I think largely because he was a very talented person, a good writer, He became an advisor to several important Saudi princes, including Faisal al-Turki, who was the intelligence minister for a very long time. So while he played this key role as a journalist, as an editor of, you know, important newspapers in Saudi Arabia, at the same time as he did this, he had his own understanding of the role of Islam and governance and so on, and had allegiances to the Brotherhood. And it’s, as I say, in that context that he met Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who for all his problems, and there are many, was seen for some time as a moderate figure in the Muslim world, or somebody who was very much committed to democracy and to, you know, the ideas of of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Of course, it turns out that Mr. Erdogan’s commitment to democracy was very shallow. He’s been throwing his opponents in prison, ruling more as an autocrat. But nonetheless, during that brief window, many intellectuals in the Arab world gravitated to Mr. Erdogan as a sort of leader of a kind of democratic Islam. And I think this is what attracted Mr. Khashoggi. It’s important to remember that Mr. Khashoggi, until recently, was not a dissident in Saudi Arabia. In fact, he was an establishment person. And it’s only with the coming to power of Mohammed bin Salman as the crown prince and essentially the power behind the throne, and Mr. Mohammed bin Salman’s attack on the other sections of the royal family, it was that that I think turned Mr. Khashoggi away From the Saudi regime. And it’s only been a year since he left Saudi Arabia into self-imposed exile in the United States.

So there is a complexity inside Saudi Arabia. The role of the Brotherhood is a contested one. And it’s this Brotherhood connection that made the link for Mr. Khashoggi with Turkey.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Vijay. Now, Erdogan this week on Tuesday made some very strong statements regarding the investigation that is under way. But he was treading lightly on the Crown Prince here. Why?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Either Mr. Erdogan is very sly fox, or he is well advised. I mean, it would have been silly to have come out on Tuesday all guns firing. You know, I think he’s clever. He is letting the story roll out by itself. He’s asking, I think, difficult questions. He’s forced Saudi Arabia to first say that the killing was accidental, and then accept that it was premeditated. By constantly asking, ‘Where is the body?’ I think he has kept this story right there on the front page. You know, he’s not allowing it to die out. If he had gone directly to accuse the Crown Prince I think then the question of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey would have immediately broken.

I mean, you have to remember that thousands of people from Turkey traveled to Saudi Arabia every year for the Hajj pilgrimage. And I think it would be very difficult for Mr. Erdogan who, you know, is the head of an Islamic party, essentially, to jeopardize the transit of thousands of Turks every year to perform this very important pilgrimage. So I think that he’s a very clever politician. Let’s not underestimate him. And I don’t think it would have been worthwhile for him to push so hard that ties might break between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

SHARMINI PERIES: And Vijay, the last final question to you. Do you think this issue is big enough to bring down the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, Sharmini, it’s very hard to forecast politics inside a kingdom. These are mercurial. You don’t know exactly what other factions are going to do, how they’re going to move. What had happened was after the new king came to power and he gave power, essentially, to his son, the son cut off the other branches of the Al-Saud family and tried to secure all power with himself. So the other branches of the Al-Saud family have been unhappy for a long time. And I’m sure that they are plotting some way to come back to the center of power, and this might provide them with that lever.

On the other hand, during the course of this past year, Mohammed bin Salman has centralized power in his person, and it might be quite hard for them to overthrow him. I mean, if the atrocity of Yemen- which even Mr. Khashoggi, who initially supported the Saudi war in Yemen, said that this is a real dent in the reputation of Saudi Arabia- if the atrocity of Yemen couldn’t pull down Mohammed bin Salman, I’m not sure that this is big enough to do so.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Vijay. As always, I thank you so much for joining us today, and I look forward to you next week.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.