By now the whole world knows that Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who had been living as a U.S. resident in Virginia for the last year, who was also a Washington Post correspondent who had written critically about the Saudi regime, disappeared under mysterious circumstances more than three weeks ago after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Khashoggi had requested from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Friday, September 28, an official document he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.
The consulate contacted Khashoggi the following Tuesday morning, on October 2, to inform him that his document was ready, according to his fiancée. Khashoggi arrived at the consulate for his 1 pm appointment and went in. Cengiz waited for him to return from the consulate, but he never came out and was not seen again.
The Arab and international media began reporting on Khashoggi’s story immediately upon his disappearance, demanding answers from the Saudi government. While the Saudi media initially ignored the story, it later pointed the finger at Qatar for allegedly conspiring against Saudi Arabia.
Saudi newspaper Okaz declared Khashoggi’s disappearance a “fabricated” or made up story, dismissing it and characterizing the incident as an “internal” matter.
Immediate World Reaction
Khashoggi’s status as a world-renowned journalist and an international public figure catalyzed global condemnation and revulsion, however, with a host of countries demanding answers, including in an official statement issued jointly by the UK, France, and Germany.
Turkish-Saudi relations became decidedly more complicated in the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, especially in light of reports from the New York Times that Khashoggi was assassinated “on orders from the highest levels of the royal court,” according to a senior Turkish official. The unnamed official added that a 15-member Saudi assassination team, including an autopsy expert with a bone saw, arrived in Turkey on two private planes the same day that Khashoggi disappeared, and that this “hit squad” carried out the assassination in fewer than two hours. The statement suggested that the “hit” was at the orders of the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (also known as MbS).
While the Turkish authorities claimed to have both audio and video evidence of the brutal killing in the consulate, they made no official statements over the course of the last three weeks. Instead, Turkish news channel 24 leaked surveillance footage showing the moment Khashoggi entered the consulate, at about 1:15 PM on Tuesday, October 2, 2018. The video also showed the arrival of the suspected Saudi hit team, pictures of the planes that they used, the moment they left the airport, and their arrival at their hotel.
The pro-Turkish government paper Sabah claimed that the body had been dismembered and disposed of, while later reports asserted that a “body double” dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes left the consulate by the back door.
Silencing Khashoggi and Implications for Press Freedom and Free Speech
Khashoggi was not a dissident or even a strong opponent of the Saudi regime; he simply critiqued the crown prince’s policies. He had previously served as an advisor to several princes and as an editor to several Saudi newspapers.
An assassination or disappearance of a journalist with influence as broad as Khashoggi’s allegedly at the hands of the Saudi regime, outside the kingdom’s borders, signals potentially fatal implications for all critics and opponents of the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has targeted dissidents abroad before. Saudi human rights defender Mohammed al-Otaibi was arrested at the Doha airport while traveling to Norway in May 2017. In collaboration with Saudi authorities, Qatari authorities forcibly deported him to Saudi Arabia, where he was sentenced to 14 years in prison, according to Amnesty International.
Saudis Admit “Murder” of Khashoggi in the Consulate But Disclaim Responsibility
In the three weeks since Khashoggi’s disappearance, Saudi Arabia not only stonewalled and obfuscated, but it also vacillated in its various accounts of what had happened before the Saudis finally admitted on October 19 that Khashoggi had died in the consulate.
Turkey was reluctant to present the evidence it claims to have, although some of it has been corroborated from other sources.
Bin Salman spoke to Bloomberg News Agency three days after Khashoggi’s disappearance, saying that he was ready to allow Turkey to search the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul for Khashoggi. The prince insisted that he had “nothing to hide.” However, firsthand testimony and news reports following the journalist’s disappearance did not match and still do not jibe with, the Saudi official narrative.
The U.S. Reaction
U.S. President Donald Trump remained tight lipped about the Saudi journalist’s disappearance for eight days after Khashoggi’s disappearance. Since then he has not taken any definitive position, instead reasserting his close relations to Saudi Arabia, a country to which he has been an enthusiastic friend since taking office. In fact, Trump has gone from saying the Saudi explanation is “credible” to “obviously there has been deception and there have been lies.” Trump’s response has been neither principled nor reasoned, nor consistent. But this is not terribly surprising given his remote relationship with the truth, his hostility toward the press, and his seeming indifference to human rights, not to mention his financial ties to the Saudis.
Yesterday, the U.S. took diplomatic action against 21 Saudi officials said to be connected with the Khashoggi killing. This public expression of disapproval came as the Crown Prince bin Salman appeared at an investment conference known as Davos in the Desert, from which a number of the world’s most prominent businesses and CEOs had withdrawn this week in light of the allegations of Saudi wrongdoing.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to the kingdom last week has been said by many to be simply a “fly by” visit for the U.S. and the Saudis to “get their stories straight” and agree upon a narrative that, while it would admit the death, would deflect blame from the Crown Prince for the brutal murder inside the consulate. So a new narrative emerged that Khashoggi was killed in a “fist fight” that erupted during his interrogation.
Yesterday was the closest President Trump has come in three weeks to implicating the Crown Prince himself in Khashoggi’s murder. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump when asked about the crown prince’s possible involvement, said, “Well, the prince is running things over there more so at this stage. He’s running things and so if anybody were going to be [involved], it would be him.”
In a speech earlier this month, President Trump stated that Saudi Arabia should pay for U.S. protection. Many commentators have opined that Trump’s eagerness for Saudi money and arms deals, combined with his sharp criticism of the American press as the “enemy of the people” had emboldened bin Salman to order Khashoggi’s assassination.
According to a Washington Post report on October 9, “U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture [Khashoggi].” The Washington Post, for whom Khashoggi was a columnist, pointed out that it is not clear whether the U.S. authorities, on the basis of this information, had warned him or not.
Before the confirmation by the Saudis, Senator Bob Corker, Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said all indications pointed to Khashoggi having been killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Turkey’s President Erdogan’s Message
The world waited with bated breath for the Turkish President’s revelation of the “naked truth” yesterday. All that he delivered, however, was more questions and a presidential demand for Saudi Arabia to provide the answers. Erdogan asked specifically, “where is Khashoggi’s body?”
The answer seems to have materialized within hours of the Turkish President’s question. Khashoggi’s remains appeared to have turned up buried in the garden at the Saudi Consul’s residence next door to the consulate.
Notwithstanding that President Erdogan called the killing “a political murder,” pre-planned and premeditated, and confirmed many of the details that had been previously leaked through the official Turkish press over the last three weeks, Erdogan’s speech came short of actually implicating the Saudi crown prince or the king. Instead, it merely seemed orchestrated to buy more time for Turkey perhaps to extort greater concessions from Saudi Arabia in the two countries’ tussle for hegemony in the MENA region.
President Trump reacted that Erdogan was “pretty rough” on the Saudis, but also opined that it “was the worst cover-up ever.”
Saudi Arabia’s Track Record of Suppressing Dissent and Message to Dissenters
Khashoggi’s case is not unique in the Saudi regime’s dark past and present concerning human rights. Beyond its perpetration of war crimes in Yemen, it is notorious for prosecuting and threatening all dissident voices and human rights defenders, such as Raif Badawi, Hala al-Dosari, and many others.
Khashoggi’s murder and disappearance of the body is only the latest in a long line of Saudi atrocities sending a chilling message to dissenters worldwide, that we will find you and come for you wherever you are.
MbS to the U.S.
It may also be a first in a message to the U.S., that Saudi Arabia is “in the big leagues now, no longer America’s little brother, but a full equal on the world stage.”
Whether the U.S. tolerates such a brazen thumb-nosing to the rule of law and international world order may determine the U.S.’s relations not only with Saudi Arabia but also with Europe as well as other countries in the Middle East.
The case is not closed yet. More evidence of culpability may come to light in the coming days.