by Eldar Mamedov
As Saudi Arabia improvises cover-ups of the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a dedicated group of pundits goes into an overdrive trying to minimize the blow to Saudi Arabia’s international reputation.
One of the strategies they pursue is to try to undermine the credibility of Turkey as the country that has provided to the international media and, reportedly, also American intelligence, the details of what appears to be a particularly gruesome crime. The pundits in question mostly work for the neoconservative, pro-Israel Washington-based thinktanks such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the Washington Institute for Near East (WINEP). They are aided in this endeavor by members of the Gulenist cult, followers of exiled Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen, suspected to be behind the botched coup d’etat against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016.
The goal of this campaign is to show that Turkey cannot be trusted as a legitimate source of information on what happened to Jamal Khashoggi because it massively mistreats journalists itself. By shooting the messenger, those who engage in this kind of exercise hope to absolve the perpetrator.
True, Turkey’s record on freedoms has been steadily deteriorating in recent years, and the rule of President Erdogan has turned increasingly authoritarian. But Erdogan’s real sin is not this. After all, FDD, which some people joke stands for Faking the Defense of Democracies, is generally reluctant to criticize the rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, all of whose human rights records are considerably worse than Erdogan’s, as documented by international human rights organizations and official bodies such as the European Parliament. Unlike those regimes, Erdogan’s Turkey still tolerates fairly genuine elections, the presence of a sophisticated civil society, and critical media.
The real problem these neoconservatives have with Erdogan is, as already noted by other experts, geopolitics. Erdogan’s strong advocacy of Palestinian rights, openness to deal with Iran, and close ties with Qatar place him on the wrong side of the geopolitical divide. Conversely, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are valuable assets due to their confrontational policies toward both Iran and Qatar, seeming indifference to the Palestinian cause, and hints at rapprochement with Israel.
There is, however, another reason why Erdogan’s Turkey is treated with skepticism, if not outright disdain, while Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MbS) Saudi Arabia elicited, until very recently, warm enthusiasm in Western circles far beyond the Washington thinktank bubble. Former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s view of MbS as the best news to come from the Middle East in decades was, after all, fairly widely shared in Europe as well.
That reason has to do with the Orientalist biases still pervading much of the Western policy-making and expert community. According to this mindset, Muslim masses simply cannot be trusted with making rational choices. Democracy in that part of the world is messy. It tends to produce outcomes that are favorable to Islamists, detrimental to Israelis, and, at times, offensive to Western cultural sensibilities. Hence, enlightened despots in the mold of Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Iran’s Reza Shah Pahlavi are the best option to force these societies into modernity and secularism. MbS is framed as such a “modernizing leader” for Saudi Arabia. The fact that remarkably little was enough for him to entrench this view—some cosmetic reforms like allowing women to drive and attend stadiums—highlights the depth of this bias. At least, Ataturk and Reza Shah, for all their faults, were serious about reforms, while MbS didn’t even start touching the fundamentals of Saudi Arabia’s infamous male guardianship system. Instead, he jailed those who did.
Erdogan, by contrast, embodies grassroots, bottom-up Islamist politics that has its counterpart in the transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement. There is a reason why pro-Saudi lobbyists denounce Turkey as an “Islamist dictatorship.” To Western audiences, the contest between Turkey and Saudi Arabia has to be framed as one between “reactionary Islamism” and “progressive modernism.” The defeat of Erdogan thus becomes also one of global Islamism, while the triumph of MbS signifies the much-desired ascendancy of Arab and Muslim “modernists.”
An old-fashioned colonialism should be added to the mix. Those cynical enough not to buy the fairytale of MbS the reformer still see uses in having an Arab strongman as a client who can be counted on for containing Iran, facilitating Israeli policies in the region, and buying a lot of arms from Western producers. A democratically elected leader like Erdogan, by contrast, is much likelier to be prickly and nationalist, as he is answerable to his own people, not external patrons. That makes dealing with such leaders challenging for it requires negotiating outcomes that he or she could plausibly sell to his/her population. That implies making policy concessions that can be avoided when dealing with a dependable autocrat.
Ultimately, however, the Khashoggi debacle shows—as the war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, and the abduction of the Lebanese prime-minister should have made clear long time ago—that putting all one’s eggs in an autocrat’s basket advances neither Western values nor interests. For all its messiness, engaging genuine grassroots forces in the Muslim world—who are by no means limited to Islamists, but certainly include them—can be the only realistic way to put relations between the West and Middle East on a more sustainable footing.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.