Will Trump Turn On Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? | Opinion

The United States is beginning to pull in the reins on Saudi-led strategic initiatives connected to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), a move that may be the expected retribution against the heir to the Kingdom's throne. On Wednesday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis called for a cessation of hostilities in Yemen, giving the warring parties just 30 days to come to the negotiating table. The White House is also now demanding that Saudi Arabia end its political squabble with Qatar. It seems that crown prince Mohammed bin Salman no longer has carte blanche from Washington.

The political assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi is the catalyst behind these new ultimatums. What we are witnessing is the best attempt by the Trump Administration to solve an unprecedented foreign policy puzzle. How can it balance the geopolitical importance of its historic relationships with Saudi Arabia and Turkey against the moral principles it claims to champion as a global leader?

Furthermore, how will the Trump Administration navigate the emerging geopolitical chess-match between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran for hegemony of the Middle East? This, more than anything, will prove the true foreign policy challenge for President Donald Trump. It is encouraging that Secretary of State Pompeo, the CIA Director Gina Haspel, and Secretary Mattis are fully engaged. They are viewed as the "adults in the room."

In an effort to gain clarity on the unfolding Khashoggi crisis, an increasingly frustrated President Trump ordered Haspel to Turkey last week. Haspel, who is fluent in Turkish, and intimately familiar with the politics of the region, was reportedly granted access to an audio recording of Jamal Khashoggi's murder by Turkish intelligence officials.

Haspel's report to Trump last Thursday on the implications of the murder will help the current administration formulate a much-needed policy response towards Saudi Arabia—where the leadership may be implicated in the killing. Her trip will also offer insights into the simmering battle for the hearts and minds of the Sunni world between Ankara and Riyadh.

According to the steady stream of leaks emanating from Istanbul, but increasingly admitted by Riyadh, it seems Khashoggi's killing was gruesome and politically motivated. Turkish President Recep Erdogan doubled down on this narrative in an address to parliament Tuesday when he said it was clear that "this savage murder did not happen instantly but was planned."

President Erdogan's statement that he "did not doubt the sincerity of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz" served as a tacit implication of the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)—de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia—in Khashoggi's murder and cover up.

The directed leaks are an operation to drive a wedge between King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his son, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Prince Salman denies any involvement. In his first public statement since Khashoggi's death nearly four weeks ago, MBS called the killing a "heinous crime" and vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice.

If Erdogan can bring international pressure to bear—most critically from the United States—the Saudis may be forced to sideline or even replace MBS—the staunch opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Erdogan and the Qatari government are sympathetic.

Rest assured, Erdogan's willingness to force-march the investigation of Khashoggi's death is not borne out of his commitment to freedom of the press. Since the failed 2016 coup, Turkey has arrested over 300 journalists, detained over 100,000 people and fired 160,000 civil servants.

While Erdogan has historically shown deference to the Saudi King, MBS appears to be a new breed of Saudi leader, one bold enough to overtly challenge Iran's and Turkey's regional ambitions. And while Iran is a bitter rival of the Saudis, it cannot threaten to unseat the Kingdom as the leader of the Sunni world. Only Turkey has this power.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are both majority Sunni Muslim states, each with considerable wealth and (largely U.S.-made) military firepower. Turkey's relations with the United States have been strained over the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, its anti-Kurdish operations in Syria and growing ties with Russia.

In this handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on September 30, 2018 Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman gestures during his meeting with the Emir of Kuwait at the Bayan Palace in Kuwait City. BANDAR AL-JALOUD/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia is a religious monarchy held together by tremendous oil wealth and a Faustian bargain between the House of Saud and the country's conservative Wahabi mullahs. It is also home to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. The Kingdom's destabilization would not be in America's interests.

Since the Crown Prince's rise to power, the Middle East quickly became too small for the both Sunni powerhouses. Just this year, MBS called Turkey a part of the 'Triangle of Evil' in the Middle East. Evidence of the intra-Sunni civil war between the secular rulers and the Muslim Brotherhood and its sponsors, Turkey and Qatar, has been playing out since MBS's rise to power in 2013.

The Erdogan government has long suspected the Emiratis—close allies of the Saudis—of supporting the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Saudi support of the 2013 overthrow of Egyptian president and Muslim Brotherhood icon Mohammed Morsi is clear. The Brotherhood maintains close ties to Erdogan's AK party.

Prince Salman masterminded and executed the blockade of Qatar—Turkey's closest Middle East ally. In response, Turkey sent air, naval, and ground troops as a deterrent against potential Saudi military action.

And so the Khashoggi killing has become a pawn in this Middle East cold-war chess match. Erdogan will take full advantage of this opportunity to try and turn King Salman against MBS, and shore-up good will with the U.S. The White House response is the final piece of this puzzle, and will decide if Erdogan's gamble pays off.

Saudi Arabia is a critical pillar of President Trump's Middle East policy on energy security, Iran, Israel, and anti-terrorism, yet the Trump administration may be compelled to respond to the gruesome murder. But if the Khashoggi play fails and MBS holds onto power, Erdogan may make an enemy for life.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Founder, International Market Analysis, a Washington, D.C.-based boutique energy and political risk advisory firm. He is also Director, Energy, Growth and Security, at the International Tax and Investment Center. James Grant contributed to this article.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​​