The shadow war behind Khashoggi’s disappearance

Saudi Arabian journalist’s disappearance is pawn in larger regional struggle that connects Washington, Ankara, Doha and Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia opens up consulate after journalist vanishes, October 10, 2018 (Reuters)
Pro-Saudi Arabia voices are pushing back against accusations that well known former insider and journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. They say most of the information picked up by major media has been manipulated or based on weak sources.
Western journalists, some of them with influence beyond journalism, have also been outspoken in pressuring Washington to do more to find the missing journalist. And Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he is following the case closely and will tell the world any news that comes out.
On the line in the Khashoggi affair is more than the tragic story of a missing journalist who was once an advisor to the Saudi leadership and a path-breaking commentator in the Middle East. Two of the region’s most important states and largest economies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have been at odds for years over local policies, and this case could add to the rift between them.
On Monday, Ankara again summoned Riyadh’s envoy. Turkey is demanding “full cooperation” and wants to search the consulate. According to Turkey’s Hurriyet daily newspaper, the Turkish authorities are now searching for footage of two black vans that left the consulate on October 2, soon after Khashoggi entered. The journalist was there to receive a divorce document so he could marry his new fiancée; he has not been seen since.
He was an outspoken critic of the current Saudi Arabian leadership, although he was also supportive of many policies. He feared, however, that the kingdom’s crackdown on dissent might land him in trouble and so had been living abroad since last year.
THE KINGDOM has been on its back foot since allegations of foul play emerged on October 3. Over the weekend, new reports claimed that the police thought the journalist had been killed. But Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya television news now claims that many of the allegations have been fanned by Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.
An article on Monday asserted that “a Muslim Brotherhood affiliated news website based in London claimed that Khashoggi had been tortured inside the Saudi consulate.” It showed screenshots indicating that Al-Jazeera in Qatar had deleted a tweet with this salacious claim. Al-Jazeera English also changed their headline from “Turkey treating Khashoggi vanishing as murder case” to “Turkish president on Khashoggi vanishing: Upsetting this happens in Turkey,” with a subhead about being “hopeful” the journalist was still alive.
If there is hope he is alive, then how can it be a murder case? As further evidence of the changing narrative, the Saudis point to news reports that were put out in a “synchronized manner on media outlets affiliated with Qatar.” They assert that while reports claimed Khashoggi had been killed, Ankara has said it hopes he will be found alive.
This discrepancy can be found in Western reporting of the incident as well. Western outlets picked up reports that Turkish police thought the journalist had been killed. But then it appears that comments from Ankara showed there was less certainty. By Monday, the allegations of videos and other details had not produced any new evidence.
THE CONTEXT of this war of words is the Qatar-Saudi Arabia dispute that began in June 2017. Riyadh has led several countries to break relations with Doha. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told the Council on Foreign Relations in September that “Qataris since the mid-90s have been sponsoring radicals. They have been inciting people. They have become a base for the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Khashoggi had not supported the kingdom’s recent policies, particularly those of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. He wrote in May 2018 that while he supported the prince’s social reforms, he did not find favor with “the Yemen quagmire; hastily executed economic reforms; the blockade of Qatar; discussions about an alliance with Israel to counter Iran; and last year’s imprisonment of dozens of Saudi intellectuals and clerics.”
He has said that Riyadh has drifted from its roots in political Islam and he has urged the kingdom to work more closely with Turkey and Qatar. “Saudi Arabia must return to supporting the Syrian revolution and partnering with Turkey on this.” He also said in November 2017 that the kingdom should not be so hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, which took advantage of the Arab Spring revolutions begun in 2010, coming to power in Tunisia and Egypt before being toppled in Egypt in 2013.
That he would speak to Al-Jazeera – which the current leadership in Riyadh views as an arch-enemy – would have been alarming to the Saudi leadership. Perhaps also alarming to them were his close relationships in the West, including at The Washington Post where he mentioned taboo subjects such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Khashoggi understood the kingdom’s need to maintain its image abroad. For instance, in a piece that he penned in 2008 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he was described as “media advisor to the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the UK.”
THE DISAPPEARANCE now risks Saudi Arabia’s image. The UK Foreign Office said the allegations were “serious.” The kingdom is used to some critique from human rights organizations, but in August Riyadh expelled the Canadian ambassador over comments from Canada’s government that Saudis saw as meddling in internal affairs.
But the unfolding affair leaves many unanswered questions. Thomas Friedman called on US President Donald Trump to “ask Saudis to give a full and credible account of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi inside their Istanbul consulate. And tell us what he knows, too.”
The disappearance has illustrated how closely journalism, state leaders and foreign policy are interconnected. Khashoggi was not just a journalist in this sense, he was a major player in discussions about US policy and Saudi Arabia, and also had an impact on Turkey-Saudi and Qatar-Saudi relations. It’s hard to quantify this, but some hint can be seen in Friedman’s own relationship with the crown prince.
In November 2017, Friedman wrote a column in The New York Times describing the prince as a reformer who would bring “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at last.” In March 2018, he wrote again: “Memo to the President on Saudi Arabia.”
“I can think of no one else in the ruling family who would have put in place the profound social, religious, economic reforms that [Mohammed Bin Salman has] dared to do.” But he said that the crown prince was also carrying out “bullying foreign policy initiatives” and it was “our job” to “help curb his bad impulses and nurture his good ones.”
This kind of paternalistic rhetoric that made it seem like Trump would educate the Saudi royal may have seemed normal in the US, but it points to a deepening sense that major US media were seeking to influence US foreign policy regarding the kingdom. How often do major newspapers urge leaders to “curb bad impulses” of a foreign leader?
After the disappearance of Khashoggi, a new chorus emerged, demanding that the US pressure Saudi Arabia to find him. Very few voices reached out to the crown prince directly, which was strange considering that some major US media and diplomats have interviewed him.
THE PICTURE being painted is of a shadow war that has been taking place between Saudi Arabia and Qatar on one hand and, in the larger context, between the kingdom and other adversaries. There are those in the kingdom who have opposed the changes of the last two years. Some have powerful friends abroad, either in the US, Turkey or elsewhere. Some had once been crafters of Riyadh’s once-closer relations with political Islamic parties.
In an era where major media such as Al-Jazeera are linked to the governments they operate under, the shadow conflict is not just one of Cold War-type cloak and dagger spies. Journalists who once advised kingdoms become pawns or players in regional conflicts. This is total war, but not of the type where economies and armies march in lockstep like the 20th century, but where media and governments fight wars of narratives.
Khashoggi was a supporter of the Arab Spring, but he has also been outspoken against rising totalitarianism. He has said that while the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt made mistakes through cohabiting with more extremist Salafism, the Brotherhood in other forms – such as Turkey’s current policies or as it developed in Tunisia – were models.
The Arab Spring is over and Khashoggi appears to have disappeared as the movement’s last remnants are struggling for space. It might be he was its last victim.