We’ve seen again how hard it has become to manage the Middle East in the interests of Western imperialism. The players this time are the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Historically the three were closely linked—Turkey a key member of Nato, and the Saudi absolute monarchy one of the US’s most important client regimes. But Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been increasingly at odds.
They are competing for political and ideological leadership of the dominant Sunni wing of Islam. The Saudi royal family has always claimed legitimacy from its role as keeper of the main Muslim holy places. But Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK party stands for a more “modern”, explicitly pro-capitalist version of political Islam.
Regionally, Erdogan allied to the Muslim Brotherhood, whom the Saudis loathe as a radical Sunni rival. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have vied to turn the Syrian revolution into a Sunni sectarian movement. Both have sponsored and armed jihadi groups.
But Erdogan has been increasingly on the back foot. US support for Kurdish nationalist forces in Syria has soured relations with the US. He has campaigned since the abortive military coup of July 2016 for the US to extradite Fethullah Gulen, whom he blames for the coup, and jailed an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, for alleged links with Gulen.
In August Donald Trump hit back. He doubled US tariffs on Turkish aluminium and steel, and withheld delivery of 100 F-35 jets. The Turkish economy was already under pressure. It had boomed thanks to a property bubble funded largely by borrowing in dollars and euros. Like Argentina, Turkey has been hit by rising US interest rates.
In August, despite Erdogan’s long-standing opposition to increasing Turkish interest rates, the fall in the lira forced them up by 24 percent. So Erdogan has retreated.
Brunson was released at the end of last week. “But US officials had little time to celebrate,” the Foreign Policy website commented. “They were struggling the same week with Turkey’s carefully orchestrated release of details in the horrific case of Jamal Khashoggi.”
Khashoggi, a relatively moderate critic of the Saudi regime living abroad, disappeared after entering the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.
The Turkish government claims that a specially-flown in hit team seized, tortured, and killed him. It alleges that his dismembered body was smuggled out of the consulate and his terrible end recorded on his smartwatch.
This puts two people on the spot. The first is Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, the Saudi heir apparent. He is about to host a big business conference, the Future Investment Initiative, in Riyadh. MBS has form when it comes to political violence.
Last November he used the Ritz-Carlton hotel to detain hundreds of his opponents charged with corruption. He has waged a bloody war in Yemen. Various opposition figures have been kidnapped abroad by Saudi intelligence, while the Lebanese prime minister was allegedly held hostage and forced to resign during a visit to Saudi Arabia.
The Khashoggi affair is a big own goal for MBS. Even the ultra-venal Richard Branson is threatening to boycott the Future Investment Initiative. And then there’s the second person on the spot—the US president.
Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner are close to MBS. The US has signed a much-trumpeted £84 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Trump has the Saudis’ biggest regional rival, Iran, in his sights. But the disappearance of Khashoggi, who was a columnist on the Washington Post newspaper, has caused uproar in the US capital.
According to Foreign Policy, “Some diplomats and analysts see in the leak campaign a clever Erdogan ploy to drive a wedge into what he sees as the worrisome alliance between Washington and Saudi Arabia.”
Certainly Trump is squirming. He says there will be “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if its responsibility for Khashoggi’s disappearance is proven. But he also insists “there are other ways of punishing” than cancelling the arms deal. The blood pact between the Saudi autocracy and US imperialism still holds.