The mystery continues. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, known for his criticism of the Saudi government and its crown prince, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, and never came out. Turkish investigators probing his disappearance say that he was murdered, or possibly abducted, in the consulate by a 15-member Saudi squad.
The allegation has turned up the heat on Saudi Arabia, which denies any wrongdoing. As the Saudis rightly point out, the Turkish investigators have no hard evidence. The only thing we know: Khashoggi went to the consulate on Friday, September 28 to do some paperwork so he could marry his Turkish fiancée, and was told to return on Tuesday, October 2. He had worried that he could be kidnapped and taken back to Saudi Arabia if he went in to the consulate. He entered around 1:30 p.m. on October 2, and never came back out.
Khashoggi moved to the U.S. last year as Saudi authorities began detaining dozens of critics. Of course, Saudi Arabia has previously targeted dissidents living abroad. Indeed, three princes living in Europe that were critical of the government disappeared between 2015-2016. Khashoggi, while not royal, was undeniably close to power centers. As an outspoken critic from within the kingdom’s elite — he was a consummate insider, having served as an advisor to the royal family — the regime may have viewed him as a voice that would not be ignored.
Saudi-Turkey tensions are now escalating. On Monday, Turkey requested a search of the Saudi consulate, while Turkish authorities said they were investigating a black van with diplomatic plates that they believe may have carried Khashoggi from the consulate. Turkish authorities recently released CCTV footage showing Khashoggi entering the consulate and several diplomatic vehicles purportedly carrying Saudi intelligence officers and officials arriving at and leaving the facility.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded that Saudi Arabia provide video footage to prove that Khashoggi left the facility, saying that Saudi officials “can’t salvage themselves” by simply claiming that Khashoggi left. Oddly, Turkey now seems to be de-escalating its rhetoric after initially stirring the pot: a pro-government paper now claims that the investigation’s focus had moved to the possibility of Khashoggi having been smuggled out of Turkey. Turkish officials have communicated in private to their US counterparts that they still believe the critic was killed, but that Ankara’s leadership is willing to de-escalate for Riyadh in exchange for concessions.
Though the two states are political rivals, they are usually keen to shun public spats. Still, Ankara could expel the Saudi ambassador to Turkey over this, prompting tit-for-tat measures from Riyadh. The ensuing diplomatic crisis would drag the U.S. into the midst of a nasty dispute between a NATO ally and one of its closest Middle Eastern allies, potentially forcing Washington to pick a side.
The State Department, perhaps wary of getting into a diplomatic spat, has been conspicuously muted on Khashoggi’s disappearance, with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoRepublican lawmakers raise security, privacy concerns over Huawei cloud services WashPost fact-checker gives Pompeo four 'Pinocchios' for 'zombie' claim about Obama Iran deal Poll: Biden, Trump statistically tied in favorability MORE asking Saudi Arabia to back a “transparent” investigation into Khashoggi. But this is not enough. The U.S. may have robust relations with Saudi Arabia, but that doesn’t absolve Washington of its responsibility to safeguard journalists worldwide.
Press freedom has hit a nadir in the Middle East. And now the irony of Turkey, a serial jailer of journalists, opening a probe into a missing Saudi journalist — itself possessing a terrible record on this front — should not escape anyone.
Vice President Pence, for his part, said he was “deeply troubled” by the reports and called attention to how endangered press freedoms had become worldwide. More of this rhetoric is needed now to reiterate America’s commitment to freedom of the press and freedom of expression globally.
Khashoggi’s fate remains unclear. But his disappearance is certainly a fact. And it took place in a Saudi diplomatic facility – sovereign Saudi soil. There is no evidence to either absolve or implicate Riyadh in the matter, but it is difficult to trust either Turkey’s or Saudi Arabia’s official version of accounts given the former’s penchant for disinformation and the latter’s multiple explanations.
The confusion over Khashoggi’s whereabouts already casts the Saudis in a bad light, but his disappearance — whether a kidnapping or a murder — would put Riyadh on a trajectory that does not bode well for crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation, plans to reform the kingdom, or alliance with the U.S.
The young royal has notched several high-profile wins, but has also shown a worrying tendency to respond asymmetrically to criticism, be it from domestic or foreign sources. The State Department and White House should demand answers from the Saudis over the whereabouts of Khashoggi, and pressure both Ankara and Riyadh to publicize evidence. The outrage over Khashoggi’s disappearance is not likely to dissipate soon.
Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies specializing in Gulf States issues. Find her in Twitter @varshakoduvayur.