'Erdogan Wants to be the Caliph of the Region': Q&A With Theodore Karasik

Published October 28th, 2018 - 10:42 GMT
Hayder al-Shakarchi for Al Bawaba
Hayder al-Shakarchi for Al Bawaba

Interview by Hayder al-Shakarchi


The following interview is part of a series published by Al Bawaba News, exploring the viewpoints, convictions, partisanship and consensus that exists in Washington D.C. around Middle East issues.

This author of this series will speak to analysts, policymakers and experts in their own words. Our aim is to provide a sense of the discussions and insider dialogue taking place in the world's most powerful capital. This does not in any way imply an editorial edorsement of the individuals or policy proposols put forward.

At times the framing of events and geopolitics found in the DC Insider Q&A format will be debunked or qualified by members of our editorial team in separate sections of the website.

Al Bawaba is indepenent and does not align with any existing political party or ideological group.

Hayder al-Shakarchi is an Arab-American journalist and an international news analyst based in Washington, D.C.



al-Shakarchi: Amidst all the chaos involving the Khashoggi affair, Egypt's foreign minister traveled to Riyadh. Why did Egypt emerge as one of Saudi Arabia’s firm allies, especially now?

Karasik: “Egypt is looking to Saudi Arabia because the two are interlinked together and not only in the sense of the future of the region but also because Egypt requires Saudi, and other Gulf help, in restructuring and transforming its economy. Egypt, as the core of the Middle East, is critical to the stability and security of the rest of the region. Thus, the two naturally gravitate toward each other. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt need each other at this time.”

al-Shakarchi: What other countries are standing firmly with Saudi Arabia?

Karasik: “A number of different Arab countries, as well as African countries, have come to side with Saudi Arabia during this difficult time. Most notably, of course, is support from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, as well as several other African states, including Djibouti. Another important factor is that the support isn’t only coming from countries but organizations as well, such as the OIC and the Muslim World League… These entities are also supportive of Saudi Arabia. These countries are supporting Saudi Arabia at a time of great transition in the Kingdom. For them, they are not only supporting Saudi Arabia in terms of the future king, MbS, but also because of what Saudi Arabia represents. It’s the custodian of the Holy mosque and so naturally, these countries are coming to side with Saudi Arabia against Turkey and the West.”

al-Shakarchi: It seems as though the Khashoggi affair is not playing a role in any of this.

Karasik: “These countries are all gathering around and are supportive of Saudi Arabia because this is the basis for a number of different organizations in the region that have to deal with security, economics, and counterterrorism, as there have been discussions about the emergence of the so-called Arab NATO or the creation of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition. Then, you have the remedies of the GCC on top of that. There are also bilateral and multilateral discussions and exercises that bring some of these states together in terms of creating a new architecture based on the transition that is ongoing in the region. This gathering around and supporting of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a phenomenon that has been ongoing since King Salman claimed the throne.”

al-Shakarchi: Are any of Saudi Arabia’s current allies backing away due to the Khashoggi affair?

Karasik: “There is a lot of disinformation in the press right now regarding the individual Arab states and where they stand in terms of Saudi Arabia. One example is Kuwait in the aftermath of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit in which there were back and forth accusations of what was actually agreed upon during his visit.  At the time, some argued that Kuwait could be underneath the Turkish umbrella, but this is a false accusation because of ongoing disinformation. The truth of the matter is that the Arab states and the Gulf states, excluding Qatar, are all gathering around and supporting Saudi Arabia because the failure of the transformation will bring unforeseen consequences to their countries and it is in their best interest to support the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, no matter what.”

al-Shakarchi: Why did Turkish President Erdogan hold that speech, claiming that he had evidence?

Karasik: “Erdogan wants to be the Caliph of the region. In his speech on 23 October, he had an opportunity to make that happen and he did not. Erdogan is holding back and he, perhaps, does not want to give all the evidence at this time. The Turkish President may use this opportunity to score more geopolitical points in the very near term. And so, everybody- policymakers, journalist, stakeholders and influencers- are all awaiting to see when and if Erdogan provides new information and insight regarding what happened in the consulate. This did not appear and thus, it appears that Erdogan stepped back from this confrontation with Saudi Arabia for the time being.”

al-Shakarchi:  Apparently, the president of Turkey and Khashoggi were friends thus Khasshogi had defended Erdogdan in the past. Now, Erdogan is simply using his friend’s death as mere propaganda. What are your thoughts?

Karasik: “I think that the Khashoggi affair is being used by many parties to achieve their own personal agendas and I think that’s an insult to Jamal's memory. There are many different groups that are using his death as a political weapon and are seeking to use his memory for personal and professional gain.”

al-Shakarchi: U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is known to have close ties with MbS. Yet, he strictly remained in the background during the Khashoggi affair. Now, he’s back in the picture. What role did he play in all of this?

Karasik: ““Kushner doesn't speak in public very often, but when he does, you need to listen to what he says because he is the Senior Advisor to the President of the United States. In that sense, what Kushner does and does not do is subject to interpretation by observers. It's not clear who played which role because the infosphere is full of disinformation. Is there communication between the White House and the senior Saudi leadership? Yes. However, what was said is not known at this time; there is a high degree that the White House is clearly aware of what happened. Now, we are seeing the results of what the White House know by some very tough language from Trump regarding the Khashoggi affair.”

al-Shakarchi: Should we expect any consequences regarding the Khashoggi affair?

Karasik: “On the evening of 22 October, the U.S. announced that quite soon, specific Saudi individuals will have their visas revoked by the U.S. State Department, as well as for exploration of how effective the Magnitsky Act can be used to sanction certain individuals. We don't know yet who will be subject to visa rejection and that will be determined following further thorough investigation, led by U.S. authorities, in terms of their determination on who did what with whom. This will be seen sooner rather than later because the White House wants this issue resolved in a very tough way to send a sharp message that ‘there's other business to get on to’ and that ‘that’s more important in terms of reaching regional stability.”

al-Shakarchi: What would be the consequences on Saudi Arabia if MbS was held responsible for the Khashoggi affair?

“The consequences on Saudi Arabia [if MBS was held responsible for the Khashoggi affair] would be for Riyadh to continue to bolt from the West and move East. We've already seen that process accelerate ever since the dispute with Canada broke out. During this period of time, the Saudis are not willing to tolerate interference in their transformation because it's extraordinarily serious for the state and its future. If sanctions are put on the top leadership, you might expect that the Saudis will do the same in return, in a number of different areas, to send sharp messages. These sanction actions could last for several months and then be removed. From a local point-of-view, American sanctions will further distance the region from the West and make political relations more difficult. The Saudis are not going to be pushed around... This is the attitude now and they are going to continue with their transformation as planned.”

al-Shakarchi: Trump seems to have known much more than he let on… Will that just be swept under the rug?

Karasik: “We are going to have to see how that plays out, particularly in terms of congressional action.  That congressional action will become important, especially after the November election. If the Democrats are with the House, then the White House will do what needs to be done.”

al-Shakarchi: On 24 October, KSA initiated its investment conference. $50 billion worth of deals were signed on the first day of that event, while the Khashoggi affair was nowhere near over. Are people already forgetting about Khashoggi?

Karasik: “Probably not because people are going to keep talking about it due to the bi-partisanship, their anger, and so forth. They're directing their anger at multiple people and institutions… That anger is loud and is likely to continue for a while.”

al-Shakarchi: So why not have postponed the investment conference?

Karasik: “This conference was planned many months prior and it was not going to be moved because of this [Khashoggi] event. Something interesting to note: From those who stayed away from the [Khashoggi] event, many still attended. From the Saudi point of view, they know who their friends and allies are, so why postpone this event? It's part of the transformation plan. If you don't hold the event, you can't transform. If you can’t transform, you're not going to move to the Fourth Saudi State, which is what Vision 2030 is all about, and so the Saudi engine, if you will, has to keep moving forward.”

al-Shakarchi: The sponsor of the event, MbS, made an appearance at the conference. What are your thoughts on that?

Karasik: “It was bold. It showed leadership and it showed the importance of this event in terms of the PIF with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Opportunities, like this conference, in Saudi Arabia are for those who can invest in the Kingdom. The ability to invest in the kingdom is a long-term strategy that requires investment, critical thinking, and mixing Saudi culture and values into the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

al-Shakarchi: There was so much applause from the crowd when MbS made his appearance. What does this say about the Saudi people?

Karasik: “For many Saudis, there is this momentum of achieving greatness; of achieving this Fourth State. Under King Salman, there have been momentous and historical changes in the Kingdom. Many enjoy this; being able to go to cinemas, to drive, to explore new adventures and pursue new types of education. This engine, if you will, has taken off and there is no stopping it. So, when a charismatic figure like MbS appears, who enthralls young Saudis, this factor only inspires them more… It inspires them because MbS is standing up to be his own man and king.”

al-Shakarchi: What of the US-Saudi arms deal?

Karasik: “There is going to be a lot of noise regarding cutting off Saudi weapon purchases. There's already a renegotiation occurring on the THAAD system; this is the types of weapon systems that the Saudis are procuring from the United States. All of these, of course, have to be authorized by Congress but at the same time, those in the Pentagon, and other locations in D.C., know that these sales need to go through in order to maintain stability in the theater. So, the political theater may or not match the actual end-of-the-day purchase and transfer of weapons systems. There will be a point where the political side will ebb.”

al-Shakarchi: Pushing Saudi Arabia closer to China: Can that help the West or simply cause major distress?

Karasik: “What we’re witnessing right now is a bifurcation across a number of different lines in the region. The first split, of course, is between Qatar and the rest of the region and who Qatar is aligned with in terms of Kuwait, Oman, Iran, India, Russia… That's one kind of divide. There’s another divide in terms of the splitting away of a chunk of the Middle East to go eastward and to join Russia and China in a much wider geo-economic trade zone, and the more that the U.S. and the West penalize Saudi Arabia, the more likely that that bifurcation in the global economy is going to push Saudi Arabia further east.  Importantly, this process started about a decade or more ago and moved slowly and steadily.  Now, if you really want to push Saudi Arabia, they are already facing China and so any sanction action will just push Riyadh further into China… Such a move actually suites Riyadh’s interests.”

al-Shakarchi: If top leaders of Saudi Arabia are discovered to have been behind the Khashoggi affair, could they get away with it unscathed?

Karasik: “It is not about getting away with something. It is about a rendition that went bad and how to prevent that from happening again. It all leads to the tradecraft, if you will, that you find within the services of Arab countries. It is not pretty or pleasant. There are a lot of exchanges that go on in terms of tradecraft but clearly, something went terribly wrong, and this incident turned nasty really fast and people might have panicked and tried to cover it up. It's not about sweeping it under the rug, it's about investigating the State Security services and the Saudi judicial outcome of a very horrific murder.”

Dr. Karasik is currently a Senior Advisor to Gulf State Analytics and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Lexington Institute, both located in Washington, D.C.  Dr. Karasik is also a Principal Investigator on Jamestown Foundation’s “Russia in the Middle East” Project. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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