Turkey and Saudi Arabia's media war escalates after fallout over Jamal Khashoggi murder
As the world battles the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a silent, online war has been brewing between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Tensions have been high between the two countries since the death of Saudi Arabian dissident Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.
Days after Saudi Arabia blocked Turkish news websites including the Arabic version of the state-run news Anadolu Agency, Turkey retaliated by blocking several Saudi news websites including the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) website, the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) WAM news agency as well as the London-based Al Hayat owned by Prince Kahlid Bin Sultan and the Saudi-owned UK newspaper Independent's Turkish website.
Despite official silence, Saudi Arabian activists have long stated that Turkish news websites "are tools for Turkish intelligence to attack Arab countries especially Saudi Arabia."
Regional tension has been brewing between the two countries since the Arab Spring uprising in 2008, according to Brandeis University's Nader Habibi, who is the Henry J Leir Professor of the Economics of the Middle East and is also part of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies.
In an interview with the university's magazine, Habibi said, "During the Arab Spring uprising in 2008, Turkey supported the Muslim Brotherhood as a political movement in various Arab countries. The leadership of Saudi Arabia is opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood. They see it as a threat to their own domestic stability. So that was a sort of an ideological reason for the tensions."
The tensions grew after the Saudi Arabia-led blockade of Qatar by the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including the UAE. Saudi Arabia had accused Qatar of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood along with several other militant Islamist groups in the region.
At the time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the blockade to be lifted. Turkey came to Qatar's aid, transporting goods that had been disrupted by Saudi Arabia-imposed sanctions by establishing a Turkish-Qatari maritime line from western Izmir port to Hamad port to maintain the constant flow of goods.
The tensions reached an all-time high after Khashoggi went missing from the Saudi Arabia consulate in the Turkish capital, Istanbul. Habibi said that Turkey played a major role in implicating Saudi Arabia in the murder of Khashoggi which took place in the consulate.
The blocking of Turkish websites by Saudi Arabia came after Turkish prosecutors indicted 20 Saudi nationals over Khashoggi's murder, including former Saudi Deputy Intelligence Chief Ahmad Asiri and former royal aide Saud al-Qahtani who were charged with "instigating the deliberate and monstrous killing, causing torment."
The prosecutors' statement accused 18 others of carrying out the killing — including a member of the Saudi Royal Guard, a forensics expert, and a Saudi intelligence official who has traveled with Crown Prince Mohammed in the past. The charges were based on witness statements, analysis of Khashoggi’s digital devices, and records of the people entering and leaving Turkey.
According to Habibi, the ongoing tensions between the two countries will make it more difficult "for both sides to achieve their goals." He said, "Turkey’s efforts to play a leadership role in the Islamic world or to strengthen its economic relations with the rest of the Arab world are likely to be blocked by Saudi Arabia."
Habibi added, "Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s efforts to reunite the GCC countries and position itself as its leader will be frustrated by Turkey’s support for nations that defy Saudi Arabia. This divide will also weaken the bargaining position of both sides with Iran and other regional rivals."
Additionally, Habibi believes Turkey's economy will be in a weaker position following the crisis. He said, "Since the Qatar crisis, there’s been a significant decline in trade between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the UAE and also a decline in investment in Turkey from these countries. This hasn’t been good for Turkey because its economy is already weak. It’s been recovering from a downturn in 2018, but now economists anticipate that it might go back into another recession later this year."