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Erdogan's 'naked truth' speech ups pressure on Saudi Arabia

Analysts warn that international pressure on Mohammed Bin Salman will only continue to mount following speech by Turkish president
People watch on a TV the speech of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 23 October in a cafe in Istanbul (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered his much anticipated "naked truth" speech on the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Tuesday, which added little in the way of new information but saw him roundly dismiss the Saudi explanation.

“All evidence gathered shows that Jamal Khashoggi was the victim of a savage murder. To cover up such a savagery would hurt the human conscience,” he said, speaking in parliament.

“All those from the highest level to the lowest level will be highlighted, and will get the punishment they deserve."

Following the speech, the Saudi Press Agency released a statement from the government saying they would take "corrective measures" and "all the culprits will be held accountable, not just those involved directly".

But activists and commentators told Middle East Eye that the walls were closing in on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - widely known as MBS - and that the pressure would continue to mount on the Kingdom.

Yahya Assiri, a human rights campaigner and head of Saudi ALQST rights group, said that he had expected more information from Erdogan's speech on Tuesday but that it nevertheless set out that MBS was to blame for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

“We expected something more honest from Erdogan," he said. "We expected more information."

"But the speech is still strong enough when he said he doesn’t trust anyone but the king himself - that means that he did not trust MBS. And he said the Saudi investigation is not enough and the Saudi story was unbelievable and when he said to put the crime on the hands of other people like [Saudi advisor Ahmad] Assiri is not acceptable. It is clear to him that MBS is responsible for the crime."

Assiri - who is not directly related to the Saudi advisor with the same last name - said the fallout from the killing was putting pressure on the Saudis internationally and that MBS' position was under threat.

What the Khashoggi saga has done has crystalised a range of issues and bought them to the fore

- David Wearing, analyst

"Countries are becoming very clear they don’t want to work with MBS and they’re telling the king that MBS is a troublemaker and they don’t want to deal with him in future," he said.

"Kushner and Donald Trump are trying to find an exit for themselves - the pressure will continue and must continue and the only solution for the royal family is to kick out MBS. If not, they will lose a lot."

Saudi Arabia's close relations with the US and European governments have led to a great deal of discomfort in the corridors of power. UK Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement that Erdogan's statement "underscores the fact there remain questions which only the Saudis have the answers to".

But so far, with the exception of Germany who announced a halt in arms sales to the Kingdom, there has been little by way of action.

David Wearing, author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, said Western governments "should have stopped having relations with Saudi Arabia years ago over Yemen".

Mohammed Bin Salman meets with Salah Jamal Khashoggi (SPA)

"What the Khashoggi saga has done has crystalised a range of issues and bought them to the fore," he told MEE.

"The conversation has blown wide open and not just about Khashoggi but about a lot of issues which makes it really uncomfortable for policymakers and Saudi apologists."

He added that Erdogan's repeated references to Saudi King Salman in his speech said a lot about his lack of confidence in the latter's grip on power.

"It's no different from when a chairman of a football club says he has complete confidence in the manager," he explained.

"That is usually a sign that he has no confidence. This situation is similar to that."

'Concrete evidence'

Despite his bluntness about the fact that Khashoggi was murdered, and his dismissal of the Saudis' explanations, Erdogan did not directly accuse MBS of being behind Khashoggi's murder.

“You have to realise that he is president and not allowed to mention MBS until he has concrete evidence,” said Yusuf Erim, analyst for the state-run TRT world. “Mentioning MBS without evidence will lead to a diplomatic upset, and that is the last thing Erdogan would want.”

Once Turkish prosecutors hand down their indictment, Erim said he believes Turkish officials who have been speaking anonymously will talk on the record. 

It broadly fits into this narrative of him as the alternative leader for the Sunni world and he's being trying to do this for years and this was just another step in that direction

- Michael Sercan Daventry, analyst

"Turkish law stipulates that until a prosecutor hands out an indictment, it is illegal for anyone to divulge or leak information,” said Erim.

“This will lead to even more transparency to the process.”

Marc Owen Jones, a research fellow at Exeter University, suggested that Erdogan's somewhat cordial tone with regards to the king in particular, could "either be trying to signal that he is willing to have a dialogue with KSA and maintain relations, but only with partners that are not like MBS."

"Or it could be Erdogan being wary of mentioning MBS over fears that he is still powerful, and doesn't want to cause any further controversy by bringing up his alleged role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi," he explained.

'Where is his body?'

Despite the hype that was built up around Tuesday's speech, some of the most crucial artefacts in the Khashoggi saga - most notably the audio recording of his murder - still remain elusive.

Michael Sercan Daventry, writer and curator of the James in Turkey website, said that the speech still left a great deal of uncertainty.

"It wasn’t the moment of clairvoyance that it was plugged as being," he said. "There were lots of questions unanswered. He’s asked quite a few important questions himself, the most prominent one being ‘Where is his body?’

“But it wasn’t a seminar in ‘this is everything that Turkey knows, now it’s for Saudi to answer’. He raised many more questions than he answered.”

He added that Erdogan's decision not to be overly critical of the Saudi leadership, referring to them in respectful, statesman-like terms, was likely an attempt to encourage an image of himself as a natural world leader, rather than the angry, intolerant polemicist that characterised his domestic political image.

"It broadly fits into this narrative of him as the alternative leader for the Sunni world and he's been trying to do this for years and this was just another step in that direction," Sercan Daventry explained.

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