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Middle East players facing new test

By CUI HAIPEI | China Daily | Updated: 2019-01-15 09:27

People protest against the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London, Oct 26 2018. [Photo/Agencies]

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has become the epitome of a game of power in the Middle East, testing old alliances and shaking up the geostrategic balance, analysts have said.

The killing on Oct 2 shortly after the self-exiled writer entered Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul has tarnished Riyadh's international reputation as it changed accounts of how he died. After offering numerous contradictory explanations, Riyadh later said Khashoggi had been killed when negotiations to persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia failed.

In a region where violent conflicts have killed hundreds of thousands of people, the brutal slaying of The Washington Post columnist by Saudi agents was one of the most significant events of 2018.

Istanbul has said the writer was suffocated by Saudi agents in the consulate, before his body was dismembered and disposed of. His remains have not been found.

By consciously exposing the evidence it claims it has, the Turkish government has fully used this opportunity to re-establish the balance of power in the Middle East, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said he would not give up the case, analysts said.

Wang Jin, a research fellow at the Syria Research Center of Northwest University in China, said Turkey has used the case to dent the prestige of Saudi Arabia-its main rival in the Sunni Islamic world, as Ankara presses for accountability over Riyadh's intervention in the civil conflict in Yemen, which the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis, while Saudi Arabia's "blockade" of Qatar is seen as splitting the Arab world.

"Moreover, because of the special bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, especially the close friendship between the US first family and Riyadh, Ankara has been able to win tangible diplomatic benefits," he said.

The Turkish government is pushing for the case to shift in its favor, said Ren Yuanzhe, an associate professor of diplomatic research at China Foreign Affairs University, given its severe domestic economic difficulties.

Inflation remains one of the most pressing problems for the country's economy, after it weathered a currency crisis earlier this year when the Turkish lira lost nearly 40 percent of its value against the dollar.

"Ankara can exert pressure on both Riyadh and Washington by taking advantage of the case. On one hand, it hopes Riyadh will provide direct assistance and investment to overcome the economic crisis. On the other, it wishes the US would pay more attention to Turkey's strategic role in the region, and further draw closer to Washington from the perspective of trilateral relations with the US and Saudi Arabia."

On the Khashoggi case, because the US wants to maintain good relations with regional ally Saudi Arabia, which is important to Washington's Middle East strategy and is a huge arms market, it is unlikely that Washington will blame Riyadh.

Actually, Western countries including the US, France and Canada have placed sanctions on nearly 20 Saudi nationals, despite Saudi Arabia insisting the crown prince had no prior knowledge of the murder. Many firms, investors and bankers chose to stay away from a preplanned international conference in Saudi Arabia that was grandly advertised as "Davos in the Desert".

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now looking into ways to cancel a giant 2014 weapons deal with Saudi Arabia. In October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country would suspend arms sales to Riyadh.

"The Khashoggi case has given Turkey unusual leverage in regional power plays," Wang said, adding that Turkey has managed to consolidate its influence in Syria over the Kurdish problem and increase demands for the extradition of the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in US exile for nearly two decades. Ankara suspects him of being behind a 2016 coup attempt.

"It will make the US government make certain concessions on the issues of Syria and Gulen."

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