Eight weeks since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate inIstanbul, US President Donald Trump’s unwavering support for the kingdom’s powerful crown prince has left Turkey in a bind.
The longer it confronts Saudi Arabia over who exactly ordered the operation, the more it risks looking isolated as other countries put aside their misgivings and return to business with the world’s biggest oil exporter.
A prolonged standoff with Riyadh could also jeopardise Turkey’s own fragile rapprochement with Washington, if it forcesTrump to choose sides between the rival regional powers.
Turkey’s dilemma comes to a head this week at the G20 summit of the world’s main economies, where President Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could meet, according to Turkish officials.
Without naming him, Erdogan has repeatedly suggested the prince has questions to answer over the killing, while one of his advisers has said bluntly that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler has Khashoggi’s blood on his hands.
But Erdogan has avoided talking about Khashoggi’s death in recent speeches, raising questions about whether he may soften his stance towards the 33-year-old heir to the throne who could be running Saudi Arabia for several decades to come.
“A meeting may take place. A final decision has not been made yet,” senior political source said, shortly before Erdogan’s departure for the summit in Argentina.
“Saudi Arabia is an important country for Turkey. Nobody wants relations to sour because of the Khashoggi murder.”
Erdogan has good relations with the Saudi monarch, King Salman but ties have been strained by recent Saudi moves including the blockade of Qatar, championed by Salman’s son.
Analysts say Erdogan sees Saudi assertiveness under the prince as challenging Turkey’s influence in the Middle East.
It was the steady drip of evidence from Turkish officials furious over what they said was a gruesome and carefully planned assassination in their country which fuelled global outrage at Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed.
Erdogan said the hit was ordered at the highest levels of Saudi leadership and the CIA assessed the prince was directly behind it, despite vehement Saudi denials.
But nearly two months since Khashoggi was killed and his body dismembered by a team of 15 Saudi agents, Western powers have taken little action against Saudi Arabia, a big buyer of Western arms and a strategic ally of Washington.
The most concrete US step so far was a decision in mid-November to impose economic sanctions on 17 Saudi officials, including the prince’s senior aide, Saud al-Qahtani.
Meanwhile Trump has stood by the crown prince, saying he does not want to jeopardise US business and defying intense pressure from lawmakers to impose broader sanctions on Saudi Arabia.