New Delhi: On October 16, the Washington Post and CNN reported that the Saudi Arabian authorities are preparing a report that will acknowledge the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul as a result of an interrogation that went wrong. Sources say that the report will likely conclude that the operation was carried out without prior authorisation and that those involved will be held accountable.
The Wire breaks down what we know about the journalist’s disappearance so far.
Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been missing since October 2, 2018 after he was seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork so that he could marry his Turkish fiancée. He was last seen on CCTV cameras entering the Saudi diplomatic mission in Istanbul, Turkey and is now presumed to have been murdered.
Khashoggi has been one of the Arab world’s most prominent journalists and commentators on print and television media. As a regular columnist for the Washington Post, he was a frequent critic of the Saudi regime. Khashoggi left Saudi Arabia in 2017 and had been living in self-imposed exile in the United States since.
On October 2, Khashoggi was visiting the Saudi consulate in order to finalise paperwork pertaining to a divorce from his previous wife in order to marry his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who accompanied him on the day of his disappearance. According to CCTV footage, the journalist entered the consulate at 1:14 pm, after which he was not seen or heard from. His fiancée waited outside for 12 hours, after which she called the police.
On Saturday, October 6, Turkish officials leaked information to news outlets that their intelligence suggested Khashoggi had been murdered. This information came after Reuters news agency was permitted to tour the Saudi consulate to prove that the journalist was not being detained on the premises.
On October 12, Turkish investigators claimed that they possess audio recordings which prove that Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate. While no such recordings have been made public so far, lurid accounts of the journalist allegedly being tortured and dismembered inside the consulate followed by his remains being transported and buried at the consul general’s house 200 metres away, have sent shockwaves around the world – making everyone fear the worst. US President Donald Trump has now asked Turkey to share those recordings with his government.
Relying on CCTV footage which has been made public, Turkish authorities have weaved together a narrative, according to which a 15-member hit-squad arrived at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in the early hours of October 2. The squad included members from the Saudi special forces, intelligence and even a forensics expert – who, suspiciously stayed for only one out of the three nights they booked hotels for in the Levant neighbourhood close to the Saudi consulate. At around 4 pm on October 2, six diplomatic vehicles were thought to have carried Khashoggi’s remains to the consul general’s house on Meselik Street – a mere 200 metres away. After allegedly disposing of the remains, the hit-squad checked out of the hotel and flew back to Riyadh on two separate private jets.
While it is claimed that Turkish officials possess audio recordings in which the alleged interrogation, torture and murder of Khashoggi can be heard, these have not been released into the public domain, presumably because the planting of listening devices in a foreign consulate constitutes a breach of international diplomatic conduct. In any event, releasing the recordings could further upset what are already strained relations between Ankara and Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has vehemently denied all allegations of its involvement in the disappearance of the journalist and asserts that he left the consulate unharmed shortly after entering it on October 2. However, the mystery surrounding his disappearance persists due to Saudi Arabia’s distressingly aggressive refutation of its involvement and continued inability to provide adequate proof of his departure from the premises.
Suspicions about Riyadh’s involvement in the disappearance are heightened by the fact that Khashoggi, while living in Saudi Arabia, was instructed to stop writing and posting content on Twitter against the new de facto ruler, crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. Even after exiling himself to the United States, the veteran journalist continued to express concerns about his safety during his time in Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi told the Wall Street Journal that “it was becoming suffocating back at home and that I was beginning to fear for myself.” In a recent article, the Washington Post, citing US intelligence, said that the crown prince had ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia in order to detain him.
Khashoggi has 1.6 million followers on Twitter, and frequently used it as a platform to highlight the regressive underpinnings of what is otherwise touted as a ‘progressive’ and ‘revolutionary’ royal leadership. While he acknowledged some of the more positive reforms undertaken by MbS, Khashoggi often spoke out against the leadership for its autocratic repression of free speech and dissent within the kingdom.
The bizarre circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Khashoggi form part of a broader, more worrying trend plaguing the kingdom since the appointment of the young Saudi crown prince. Whilst pledging sweeping reforms, the 33-year-old’s rule is seen as becoming increasingly ruthless by the international community. What with the mass arrests of businessmen and other members of the royal family, and death sentences meted out to those who have preached against extremism, observers say the alleged kidnapping and murder of Khashoggi is representative of how Saudi Arabia is slipping into a pattern of resorting to extra-legal state action in order to eliminate any and all dissent.
A fortnight later, on October 15, Turkish officials and other investigators were finally allowed to enter the Saudi consulate. The investigators have confirmed that they will investigate the consulate, the premises of the consul general’s house and diplomatic vehicles. However, Riyadh’s refusal to allow any investigation for the past two weeks has led to widespread scepticism. Many argue that enough time has passed to allow for the Saudi’s to remove all traces and evidence alluding to any wrongdoing.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s efforts to discredit all allegations of its involvement, its traditional allies in the West have come under enormous pressure to take a stand in the Khashoggi matter. Last week, US President Donald Trump announced that there would “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if evidence of any wrongdoing emerges as a result of the investigations. However, he also clarified that the $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia will not be derailed due to the potentially negative impact on jobs in the US.
Saudi Arabia continues to be further isolated after the business world turned its back on the high-profile Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, dubbed “Davos in the desert”, later this month. Several media, tech and business companies, including CNN, Bloomberg, Uber and JP Morgan have pulled out of the conference over the disappearance of Khashoggi. US treasure secretary Steve Mnuchin has also postponed confirming his presence at the conference.
The Tadawul stock exchange in Riyadh dropped by more than 7% ($33 billion) on Sunday, the week’s first day of trading in Saudi Arabia. While the market recovered some of its losses later, investors are privately expressing concerns over the relationship between Saudi and the international community. The primary cause for concern stems from joint statements issued by the UK, France and Germany and the threat of unilateral sanctions being imposed on Saudi Arabia by the US and UK if it is found responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance. Riyadh affirms that if it is targeted by any action, it will respond with greater action.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for the truth to be made clear. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based NGO, has urged Saudi authorities to immediately disclose any information regarding the journalist’s whereabouts, while other media outlets across the world have sharply condemned the country’s conduct regarding the case and reaffirmed their solidarity with Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves, estimated to be about 260 billion barrels, give it considerable clout in the global economy. It has significant power to ratchet up prices, which in turn would hurt every developing economy. It is also one of the largest importers of arms, most of which come from the US. If Riyadh is attached with international sanctions, it is likely to reduce oil production that could lead to prices rising to about $100 per barrel.
Riyadh will have to proceed cautiously. If irrefutable evidence of its involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance and alleged murder transpire as a result of ongoing investigations, it is likely that the international community will further isolate the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan hinges on overseas investment, and the apparent shunning of the conference stands to disturb future investments. However, as a result of Khashoggi’s disappearance, there is some hope that the international community will have to take some decisive action to deter Saudi Arabia’s campaign to eliminate any and all dissent.