In 2001, Nassim Taleb, a Lebanese-American hedge fund trader turned risk analyst and writer revived the old term ‘black swan event’, using it to describe low-probability-high-impact events which are often ignored in statistical computations because of extremely low probabilities, and further excluded because of psychological biases. Examples cited are World War I, break-up of the USSR, 9/11 and the Internet.
In recent times, the self immolation of a Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010 is another black-swan event which set in motion the phenomenon called the Arab Spring, whose ramifications are still unfolding.
Bouazizi’s protest was in response to harassment leading to the confiscation of his push cart and wares by the local officials. In less than a month, Tunisian President Ben Ali, who had ruled for 23 years, was gone. The Arab Spring toppled Col Gaddhafi in Libya and President Mubarak in Egypt. In Syria, President Assad has been grappling with an insurgency that has drawn in the US and Russia as well as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and the Hezbollah. Moreover, it has unleashed the furies of regional rivalries of Arab versus non-Arab and Shia versus Sunni that threaten the boundaries drawn a century ago after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following World War I.
In this volatile moment comes the gruesome murder of Saudi dissident writer for The Washington Post
, Jamal Khashoggi who had been in voluntary exile in the US for a year. On 2 October, he visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to collect some documents for his forthcoming marriage to Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish national who waited outside. When he failed to re-emerge, she sounded the alarm, informing both The Washington Post
and the Turkish authorities. Initially, the Saudi authorities denied everything, claiming that he had left the Consulate.
Calibrated Turkish leaks
Within days, the story began unravelling. Even as Turkish President Erdogan refrained from direct comment, Turkish media continued to leak information in dribbles that fanned the flames. First came reports of Turkish suspicions that Khashoggi had been murdered inside the Consulate. Then came details of the two special flights in which 15 Saudi nationals had travelled to Istanbul a day earlier and departed on 2 October, as well as their passport details and photographs. They were identified as members of the Special Forces, the Royal Guard and the Intelligence Department, many of them personally close to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). The Saudi suggestion that they had gone to meet Khashoggi to persuade him to return fell flat when one of them was identified as a forensic autopsy expert equipped with an electric bone saw.
The pressure gradually mounted with reports that the Turkish authorities had an audio tape of Khashoggi being tortured, killed and dismembered inside the Consulate while a senior official of the Royal Court Saud al-Qahtani was recorded on Skype demanding ‘the head of the dog’. After a visit by US Secretary of State Pompeo to Riyadh and Ankara, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair acknowledged on 19 October that Khashoggi had been killed because he got into a heated argument and fisticuffs and somebody applied a choke-hold. A full investigation was under way. Five senior officials, including al-Qahtani and Maj Gen Ahmed al Assiri (no.2 in the Intelligence directorate), had been fired and another 18 arrested. US President Donald Trump called it a ‘good first step’ even as a bi-partisan group of 22 US senators demanded a full investigation into the heinous crime.
Following the visit of CIA director Gina Haspel to Turkey on 22 October where she is believed to have examined the tape, President Erdogan went public calling it ‘a pre-meditated and planned murder’ and demanding that the guilty be sent to Turkey to face trial.
US revoked visas for 21 Saudi nationals with Trump declaring that he was ‘very upset and angry’ but maintaining that it was a ‘rogue operation’ and rejecting any sanctions. On 24 October, MBS had a phone conversation with Erdogan and the following day Saudi authorities acknowledged that the murder was ‘pre-meditated’ and declared that those guilty would be tried and punished in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, a commission under MBS has been set up to reform the Intelligence Directorate. Pictures of Khashoggi’s sons receiving condolences from King Salman and MBS were put out and for one of them, Salah Khashoggi, the travel ban was lifted enabling him to travel to the US last week. Meanwhile, leaks from Turkey have continued including reports about discovery of body parts in the Saudi Consul’s garden and pictures of his BMW in the forest area on the outskirts of Istanbul, scouting for a burial site.
Growing Saudi-Turkey differences
MBS’s policies had often been criticised by Khashoggi, particularly the decision to launch a war in Yemen in 2015. He had edited Al Watan, a Saudi daily but quit in 2013 when Saudi Arabia supported the coup against President Morsi in Egypt. His sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood brought him close to President Erdogan and deepened his divide with political Islam of the Wahabi school from which the Saudi regime derives legitimacy. After MBS’s elevation as Crown Prince, he had moved to the US.
Initially the Arab Spring was supported by both Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- by Saudi Arabia because it got rid of secular, nationalist Arab leaders and by Turkey because it strengthened President Erdogan’s standing as a successful moderate Islamic leader. Within a year, differences cropped up. Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral gains, particularly in Egypt and the demonstrations in Bahrain, made the Saudi regime nervous while it bolstered President Erdogan because his party (AKP) was close to the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2013, there was a backlash in Egypt when Gen Abdel Fateh al Sissi mounted a coup with tacit Saudi support (he had been Military Attache in Riyadh earlier) to topple President Morsi (Muslim Brotherhood).
Differences sharpened from 2015 when King Salman took over in Riyadh and his 29-year-old son MBS became the defence minister. MBS rapidly accumulated power and in mid-2017, had been named Crown Prince, upsetting many sections of the Saudi royal family. His decision last year to put more than 300 princes into custody overnight to get them pay up for tax evasion and corruption generated enmity. He got away with it as he controlled all the security and intelligence levers, and used them ruthlessly to quell any dissent. His strong opposition to Iran made President Trump (and Israel) his ardent supporters. The move to create an Arab style NATO and blockade Qatar last year brought the differences between Erdogan and MBS into the open. Turkey beefed up its military presence in Qatar, and together with Iran, ensured that essential supplies kept flowing into Doha. Erdogan’s anger against MBS grew with reports that Saudi funding was finding its way to the Kurds in Syria.
Erdogan’s bold strategy
Since the unsuccessful coup in July 2015, Erdogan’s relations with the US and other western countries have worsened. The purge of 120000 civil servants, including police and military officials who have been dismissed, and over 40000 arrests of suspected Gulenists, has been condemned by the West. Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric in exile in the US has been held responsible for the coup attempt but the US has rejected Turkish demands for his extradition. A narrow victory in the 2017 referendum enabled Erdogan to amend the Constitution and centralise power in his hands, ensuring that he can rule till 2028. Relations with the US further deteriorated as Erdogan moved closer to Russia and the US favoured the YPG (Syrian Kurdish group) as the most effective fighters against the IS in Syria.
Khashoggi’s murder provided Erdogan an opportunity and by calibrated leaks, he has cleverly manipulated sentiment to drive a wedge between the US and MBS while exposing him up as reckless and incompetent.
Further, it has diverted attention away from his own purge of the Gulenists as he demands a full investigation into the Khashoggi murder. It improves his standing in the western countries, especially in Washington. MBS has been weakened at home and Trump too has found it difficult to provide him the unconditional support that he earlier enjoyed from the White House. Erdogan hopes that MBS’s opponents in the royal family will now come together to persuade King Salman to change the line of succession.
It is a bold strategy that Erdogan has adopted. If he succeeds, he will not only claim a new leadership role in the Islamic world but also persuade the US of Turkey’s strategic importance in the region and particularly the Syrian conflict. If this helps to split the US from the YPG, it will enable Erdogan to deal more ruthlessly with his own Kurdish groups. On the other hand, MBS may weather the storm because the US would be counting on Saudi Arabia to ramp up oil production to keep prices stable as the sanctions on Iran come into full effect on 4 November.
It may be too early to predict if Jamal Khashoggi’s killing was indeed a black swan event.
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