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Saudi journalist’s disappearance developing into diplomatic mess

Saudi journalist’s disappearance developing into diplomatic mess
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Today marks one week since exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who lived part-time in Washington, disappeared after walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Many fear that Khashoggi has been murdered. An almost equally dismal possibility is that he was taken back to Saudi Arabia against his will. Saudi officials deny either possibility, saying they do not know where he is and suggesting that he left the consulate after a meeting.

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We can’t be certain what happened, but a diplomatic row of immense proportions is brewing in front of a worldwide audience gripped by gory details provided by Turkish officials. The worst-case scenario is that Khashoggi was tortured, killed and mutilated, while the incident was videoed.

Many people perhaps would want to reject such reporting as implausible, poorly sourced, or written by supermarket tabloid-type journalists. But, sadly, the details appear to be all too true. “He was killed and his body dismembered,” the New York Times reported. The Wall Street Journal said Turkish police concluded that Khashoggi “was killed in his country’s consulate in [Istanbul] and his body possibly removed from the building in pieces,” citing two Turkish officials briefed on the case. And the Washington Post, for whom Khashoggi wrote opinion columns often critical of developments in the kingdom and its crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, reported Khashoggi was “likely dismembered.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump renews attacks against Tester over VA nominee on eve of Montana rally Trump submits 2017 federal income tax returns Corker: Trump administration 'clamped down' on Saudi intel, canceled briefing MORE has acknowledged his concern. “I don’t like hearing about it and hopefully that will sort itself out,” he told reporters. “There’s some pretty bad stories about it.”

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Trump asks Turkey for evidence on missing journalist | Key Dem calls for international probe | Five things to know about 'MBS' | Air Force struggles to determine cost of hurricane damage to F-22 jets GOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia Washington Post to publish special Opinion page with new Khashoggi column MORE yesterday urged Saudi Arabia to “support a thorough investigation” and “to be transparent about the results.”

A few hours earlier, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceHillicon Valley: Russia-linked hackers hit Eastern European companies | Twitter shares data on influence campaigns | Dems blast Trump over China interference claims | Saudi crisis tests Silicon Valley | Apple to let customers download their data Dems blast Trump for 'conflating' Chinese, Russian election interference claims A strong Kurdistan region is good for US in Iraq MORE had emphasized the increasing danger to journalists: “Deeply troubled to hear reports about Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” he tweeted. “If true, this is a tragic day. Violence against journalists across the globe is a threat to freedom of the press & human rights. The world deserves answers.”

Pence is indeed right. The ghastly fate of a raped and murdered Bulgarian journalist who had been investigating local misuse of European Union funds is one example. But in the Twittersphere, some perceived the vice president’s remarks as an attempt to take the heat off the administration’s Saudi allies.

Washington clearly wishes Khashoggi had not disappeared and wants to diminish any negative fallout on the kingdom while trying to triage an emerging rift between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, regional competitors with very different views of the role of political Islam.  

The prospect of defusing the crisis immediately does not appear likely. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Saudi Arabia must prove that Khashoggi left the consulate on his own. Turkey demanded access to the consulate, a concession that the Saudi crown prince apparently has made. Although consulates do not have the same level of diplomatic immunity as embassies, this is still significant.

The latest Saudi statement, from Prince Khalid bin Salman, the ambassador in Washington and younger brother of the crown prince, described suggestions of Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance as “absolutely false and baseless.”

In what appears to be a Turkish attempt to boost Saudi embarrassment, the Sabah newspaper today gives yet unverified details of the flights of two Saudi executive jets that brought a total of 15 men from Riyadh to Istanbul on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance. The Turkish media have described the two groups of men as “murder squads.”

According to the Turkish newspaper, one jet flew back to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and then to Riyadh, while the other flew to Egypt. The newspaper gave identification numbers of both aircraft. Along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt are regional rivals of Turkey. If these flight details are true, the diplomatic crisis could be gaining dimensions.  

This could be a turbulent week for U.S. relations with the Middle East. We retain some hope for Khashoggi to emerge, somewhere, alive and well. But don’t count on it.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.