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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Erdogan’s uneventful big reveal nevertheless puts ball in Riyadh’s court

The Turkish president’s eagerly anticipated speech lacked any major development

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepares to address the parliament in Ankara, EPA
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepares to address the parliament in Ankara, EPA

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan controlled the news cycle in the 24 hours leading up to his televised address in parliament on Tuesday. When he vowed to reveal the “naked truth” about the killing of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, speculation swirled that his words would be a game changer in the three-week saga of accusation, denial and murder.

But, far from a coup de grace, Mr Erdogan revealed little new information when he took to the podium about the final moments of the former Riyadh insider turned self-exiled dissident.

He spoke to a packed room of AKP MPs for his weekly address that, while often lively, is rarely so well-covered by the international media.

Mr Erdogan rattled through a well-trodden timeline that is already a vivid and detailed picture painted by CCTV footage, leaked pictures and passport details that have dominated the thousands of column inches written about Khashoggi’s killing since he disappeared on October 2.

While it was the most comprehensive account of what Turkey knows from Mr Erdogan, absent were many of the more shocking details that have been splashed across the country’s newspapers. Much of Mr Erdogan’s narrative was plane information that has already come to light.

There were a few details previously either not known specifically or only mentioned by undisclosed Turkish sources quoted in the media. Mr Erdogan said that the day before Khashoggi was killed two Saudi consular officials carried out reconnaissance of the Belgrad Forest on the edge of Istanbul. They also travelled to Yalova, a city nearly 100 kilometres south of where Khashoggi was killed, he said.

Although previously reported, he said that the 15-strong team of Saudis that has been accused of the killing arrived in groups by private jet the day before and on the day that Khashoggi was killed. He said members of the team included “generals”. Also notable, he said security cameras at the diplomatic facility were disconnected.

The details did not amount to the promised “naked truth”.

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But for the Turkish President, his revelations were enough. He dominated the international news on the day that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was supposed to address the opening the Future Investment Forum, their major economic conference in Riyadh.

Despite a long history of actions that critics have said undermine international norms, the rule of law domestically and the freedom of the press, Mr Erdogan stressed the importance of the Vienna Convention, of diplomatic precedents and the primacy of a fair, impartial investigation to establish all the facts. His rhetoric was a clear attempt to paint himself as a master statesman and the Middle East’s defender of the international order.

“The conscience of the humanity will be contented only if all, from those giving the order to those executing it, are held to account”, Mr Erdogan said. “As Turkey, we will follow the issue until the end and ensure that all the requirements of both our own laws and the international law are fulfilled.

“Since this is a political murder, the accomplices in other countries, if any, should also be included in the investigation. This is what the international law, the Islamic law, and I believe, the law of the Saudi state requires.”

Mr Erdogan has now very publicly said he does not buy the line out of Riyadh about rogue actors working without the knowledge of the palace.

However, he added that he had spoken to the Saudi ruler on a number of occasions and that he did “not doubt the sincerity of King Salman”.

In calling for the perpetrators to be tried in Turkey and for Saudi to make their full investigation public, he has put the ball firmly in the court of Saudi Arabia – and by extension the United States who have stood by them – to respond.

Also key was what Mr Erdogan did not say. There was no mention of an audio or video tape that sources in Ankara have reportedly claimed show Khashoggi’s murder. This was the detail much of the world’s media descended on the Turkish capital to hear about and yet it never emerged.

Its absence – if it indeed exists – is one of the cards Mr Erdogan still holds to ensure continued attention from the international press. His eloquent but ultimately limited stage show this week shows that he intends to keep using that fact to full effect.