President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has long cast himself as a champion of the Arab Spring uprisings and the political Islamists who once seemed poised to ride them to power.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia anchors the opposite camp in an ideological battle raging across the Middle East: the anti-Islamist strongmen who quashed the revolts.
The two leaders, each the head of a major regional power, have until now kept their relations cordial in the interest of stability. But during the past week, tensions between them have erupted over the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist who vanished after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul nine days ago.
Erdogan has repeatedly challenged Saudi Arabia to explain Khashoggi’s disappearance, while Turkish officials say they have video and audio evidence proving he was killed and have unleashed a stream of leaks suggesting that the royal court ordered it. The crown prince and his spokesmen have insisted, without providing evidence, that Khashoggi left the consulate freely, professing that they, too, are worried about him.
The dispute pits two headstrong nationalists – both with ambitions to reshape their region – against each other. They also share an aversion to public criticism and a history of refusing to back down from a fight.
“These are two people who each think he is the most important person in the Muslim world,” said Steven Cook, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies both countries. “Ego is a factor on both sides.”
On Thursday, there were signs that the two leaders were looking for a way out. Erdogan’s office announced that he had agreed to a Saudi request to form a joint “working group” that will examine Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Certainly, each man has much to lose.
Erdogan is struggling to manage a teetering economy and his entanglement in war-torn Syria. He can ill afford a new battle with a deep-pocketed regional power like Saudi Arabia.
For Crown Prince Mohammed, the affair threatens to severely damage the image of moderate reformer that he has worked for years to cultivate. Eager to diversify the Saudi economy before it runs out of oil, he has courted Washington, Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood with promises to open up and modernize the kingdom.
The prince has already endured his share of criticism in the West for leading a devastating war in Yemen, temporarily detaining the prime minister of Lebanon, and locking up hundreds of businessmen in a luxury hotel on suspicion of corruption. If he is held responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance – and perhaps death – that could strengthen domestic enemies bruised by his swift rise to power.
Internationally, the affair is already undermining his courtship of Western visitors and investors. Several participants said Thursday that they were dropping out of an investment conference known as Davos in the Desert that the prince is hosting this month in Riyadh.
“His credibility in the West and in the U.S. is at stake,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. “The credibility gap is going to be huge, and the Saudi boosters in D.C. are going to find it extremely difficult to portray the image that they were generally quite successful in trying to push.”
With lawmakers from both parties in Washington threatening to seek sanctions over the case, Saudi leaders appear surprised by the magnitude of the international reaction. Crown Prince Mohammed has cancelled or postponed meetings with diplomats and other foreign visitors, and Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has been unusually quiet.
Erdogan, for his part, has almost taunted the crown prince with questions, testing how close he can come to blaming Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s disappearance without explicitly doing so.
“Is it possible that there is no camera system at a consulate, an embassy?” he said, according to Turkish news reports. “Is it possible there was no camera system in the Saudi Arabian Consulate where this incident happened? I mean, if a bird flies from here, a mosquito flies, those systems would capture it. And they have the most advanced ones.”
“It is not possible for us to remain silent about such an incident happening in our country,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan’s greatest concern is not foreign but domestic: Borrowing taken on during his 15-year drive to build up the Turkish economy has left its corporate sector sagging under the weight of more than $200 billion in foreign debt. That has dragged down the value of Turkish currency, spurring high inflation.
Although Saudi Arabia is hardly Turkey’s biggest investor, Turkish officials have boasted that their country did $8 billion a year in business with the kingdom. Wealthy Saudi holidaymakers are a staple of Istanbul’s tourist industry.
“The stakes are very high, and that is why Erdogan will be very restrained,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Turkey is going through hard economic times, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries have the ability to tip the balance of Turkey’s economy.”
Khashoggi’s disappearance also threatens something less tangible: the prestige that Erdogan’s Turkey has enjoyed around the region as a refuge for Arab politicians and thinkers under pressure from their own governments.
“Because Turkey has become such a haven for Arabs who no longer feel safe in their own countries, there is a lot of reputational damage for Erdogan,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former State Department official.
Several analysts said they already saw hints that Erdogan might be exploring a face-saving retreat for both sides – for example, by allowing the crown prince to acknowledge Khashoggi’s death but pin the blame on some rogue element in his government.