Last Tuesday, Jamal Khashoggi entered the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul. He hasn’t been seen since.
Turkish authorities said on Sunday that he was killed in the consulate and his body was then clandestinely taken out of the country. However Riyadh has insisted that Khashoggi left the consulate, and Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman invited Turkish authorities to search the premises. The disappearance has rocked the Middle East, media organizations and the United States, where Khashoggi had many friends. It comes amid Turkey-Saudi Arabia tensions and growing critiques of Riyadh’s policies at home and abroad.
Khashoggi is a prominent Saudi Arabian journalist who was once an insider and adviser of the kingdom. In the 1980s and 1990s he even met and traveled with Osama Bin Laden, before al-Qaeda oversaw the 9/11 attacks. In September 2017 he left Saudi Arabia after he said he was told by officials to stop writing and tweeting to his 1.6 million followers. He told an interview at the Oslo Freedom Forum in May that he feared being arrested if he returned to his country. Nevertheless he said he was still a “believer in reform from within the system,” and that he hoped the leaders in Riyadh would listen.
He went to the consulate to receive a document certifying that he was divorced so he could marry his Turkish fiancée Hatice Cengiz. “He told her to call an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan if he did not return,” according to the BBC.
He didn’t return by nightfall. Bill Law, who knew Khashoggi for 16 years after meeting him in Jeddah in 2002 wrote at Al-Jazeera
that he feared for the writer’s safety. “This is very worrying, especially in the context of the ongoing crackdown on dissent led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”
The Istanbul public prosecutor’s office opened an investigation almost immediately. Turkish investigation sources in Turkey told The Washington Post
over the weekend that a “15-member team came from Saudi Arabia.” The murder was “pre-planned” and the body was secreted out of the consulate, while the alleged hit-squad left the country.
Riyadh calls this assessment “baseless.”
The largest fallout has been among journalists and commentators in the region. Omar Mohammed, the citizen journalist behind the Mosul Eye news blog who survived years under ISIS tyranny in Mosul, tweeted on Sunday that he had met Khashoggi in May. “He promised to tell me his story with Mosul in the ‘70s. Now he will never do!” He posted a photo from the Oslo Freedom Forum in May where Khashoggi had told him “keep up the good work for Mosul and Iraq.”
Many voices who focus on liberty and freedoms in the Middle East are particularly frightened now. “I’m drawing plans to move out from my current place. If they’re gonna kill me I don’t want it to happen in front of my son,” tweeted Iyad el-Baghdadi, president of Kawaakibi Foundation.
“It’s an absolute outrage if true. Unbelievable,” Kareem Shaheen, a journalist from Egypt, said.
Omar thinks that many Arabs who live in exile are now in danger. “Europe or US will not be able to protect anyone from Arab dictators.” None us are safe, noted Bahraini human rights activists Maryam Alkhawaja, while journalist Oz Katerji said the incident marks how “we are entering a new era of international barbarity.” Al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan tweeted that he was joking around with Khashoggi just months ago when he was on his show.
The alleged assassination is also seen in the context of Bin Salman’s other actions. Often known as MBS for short, he has been criticized in the wake of the Qatar crises when Riyadh led several countries to severe relations with Doha. He was also accused of organizing the “kidnapping” of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri
in November 2017. “The murder of a dissident journalist has to be seen as a new item in the growing list of reckless Saudi actions under MBS,” tweeted University of Ottawa academic Thomas Juneau. He argued that it joins an expanding list of controversies, including the war in Yemen, and Riyadh’s sanctions against Canada
in August. Saudi Arabia reacted angrily to Canadian criticism and demands that human rights activists be released.
In Turkey, the incident is being interpreted as an insult to Ankara. Ragip Soylu of Daily Sabah notes that the optics “makes Turkey look unsafe.” He also argued that if the reports were true “there must be a formal Turkish announcement.” This comes in the context of the growing divide between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkey is Qatar’s closest ally and has also been criticized by Riyadh for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Bin Salman said Turkey was part of a “triangle of evil,” alongside Iran and extremist groups in March.
“Trump, Kushner. I don’t usually tweet opinions, but here goes: you need to get the Saudis to find/release Jamal Khashoggi,” wrote Thomas Friedman. Many are now calling on the US to pressure Riyadh more. The Washington Post
, where Khashoggi wrote, published a blank space in lieu of his column. Friedman, who interviewed MBS in November, claimed that the young crown prince represented Saudi Arabia’s “Arab Spring, at last.” He had asserted that the Saudis were trying to “forge societal transformation.” Now Friedman appears to be having buyer’s remorse, demanding that the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir “find/release my friend Jamal.”
There should be censure for the Kingdom, say former officials and writers. Former ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro wrote that if Khashoggi was murdered there should be consequences but that “we are hampered by depending on the account of an unreliable Turkish government.” Agence France-Presse reporter Joe Dyke argued that if the killing happened “never again can any Western government pretend the Saudis are ‘modernizing’ or ‘closet liberals'.”
Popular commentator Rula Jebreal agreed. “The failure of many in the US (liberals and conservatives) to pivot forcefully in response to Saudi Arabia’s premeditated torture and murder of Khashoggi sends the message to all dictators that America is first and foremost translations and willing to trade away basic human rights.” The Trump administration has emboldened MBS, wrote analyst Aaron David Miller. Canadian author Jeet Heer urged the left in the US to “end the Saudi-American alliance,” over the allegations.
Is it really possible that a person could be lured to an embassy where a 15-man hit squad would torture, kill him and then put him in a sack, transport him in the trunk of a car, and fly him out of the country? It reminds some of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. In 1984, shots were fired from the Libyan embassy in London, killing a police officer during an anti-Gaddafi demonstration. In 1964 an Israeli was kidnapped from a Rome café and Egyptians tried to smuggle him out of the country in a diplomatic bag, but Italian authorities heard him moaning. In 1984, a Nigerian minister was abducted in London and the Nigerians sought to fly him out in a crate. In 2017, 24-year-old Dina Ali Lasloom was reportedly detained by Philippine authorities after she sought to leave Saudi Arabia. “Viciously beaten, bound by her arms and legs, wrapped in a sheet, and had her mouth duct-taped shut. She was then kidnapped by Saudi men and put on a 10:30 p.m. Saudi Airlines flight,” the Daily Beast
The Khashoggi affair will now test Saudi-Turkey relations and be a test for Washington-Riyadh relations. Yasin Aktay, an influential member of the AK Party, has said that the disappearance targets Turkey itself. The journalist felt safe in Turkey and now he is missing. Khashoggi was a critic of Saudi Arabia’s current policies and spoke for many other critics inside and outside the Kingdom.
Ali Younes at Al-Jazeera reported last year that Khashoggi advocated Riyadh upping its commitment to the Palestinian “struggle” and the Saudi Arabia should not see groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as an enemy. At a Middle East Monitor conference in late September he said the Oslo Accords were dead and that Palestinians had been deprived of the “right to resist the occupation.”
There is some pushback from pro-Saudi social media claiming that the disappearance was caused by Qatar and that there is a Qatar conspiracy involving his fiancée. Several others have also postulated that his disappearance should not be seen as only the issue of a journalist being targeted but that his former status as an insider in Saudi Arabia and his recent activity in Turkey, the US and Qatar made him appear a threat to Riyadh.
For Saudi Arabia the repercussions could be serious and the authorities have opened up the consulate in Istanbul with Consul General Mohammad al-Otaibi giving a tour which was posted on Al-Arabiya. Now the ball is in Turkey’s court, with an alleged video showing Khashoggi entering but not leaving the premises. If the accusations continue, it could lead to a major crisis with Turkey and a hardening of Riyadh’s stance.
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