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Explained: A dissident, a disappearance

A Saudi journalist entered his country’s consulate in Istanbul and vanished. Turkish officials say he was killed by assassins waiting for him inside. Why is this such a major international news story?

By: Express News Service | New Delhi | Updated: October 9, 2018 8:03:26 am
Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi journalist death, The Washington Post columnist, Saudi consulate, Istanbul, world news Istanbul police have opened an investigation, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will wait for its findings. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

A Saudi journalist entered his country’s consulate in Istanbul and vanished. Turkish officials say he was killed by assassins waiting for him inside. Why is this such a major international news story?

What has happened?

A week ago, Saudi Arabian Jamal Khashoggi — a resident of the US and a columnist for The Washington Post — visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up a document he needed under Turkish law to marry his fiancee, a Turkish woman. He did not emerge, and over the next few days, unnamed Turkish officials were quoted in news reports as saying they believed Khashoggi was murdered by a Saudi hit squad inside the consulate building, and his body was taken out in a black car. But they did not explain how they had reached this conclusion — equally, Riyadh, even though it insisted the charges were baseless, did not give any explanation for Khashoggi’s disappearance. Istanbul police have opened an investigation, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will wait for its findings.

Why the suspicions?

Khashoggi is a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who used the influential platform of his column in The Post to hammer relentlessly at policies that he believed were not in Saudi Arabia’s interest. Prince Mohammed has a reputation for being volatile, with no appetite for dissent. In November 2017, the Prince allegedly orchestrated the kidnapping of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and he has pushed Saudi Arabia’s traditional rivalry with Shia Iran to dangerous extremes, including failed attempts at destroying Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and a disastrous intervention in Yemen to crush Shia Houthi rebels. He has also tried to choke Qatar, a diplomatic crisis that remains unresolved.

Turkey and Saudi

Almost no commentator believes Turkey would make allegations without evidence to back it up. A BBC report pointed out that the Ankara-Riyadh relationship is already strained over several issues, “including Turkey’s support for Qatar in the blockade by Saudi Arabia; its closeness to the Muslim Brotherhood — blacklisted by Riyadh as a terrorist organisation; and its rapprochement with Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran”. If Turkey is able to prove — or chooses to prove — that Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul, it could precipitate “the most serious diplomatic crisis between the countries in living memory”.

What happens now?

Obviously, the US role will be critical. Consider: Khashoggi is a US resident; Turkey is a NATO ally, but its relationship with the US is going through a rough patch; and Saudi Arabia is probably President Donald Trump’s closest ally in that part of the world. And yet, despite Western support for the reformist Prince, such a brazen violation of international diplomatic norms is unlikely to pass without repercussions. President Erdogan is clearly waiting for the situation to develop further. A report in The Guardian predicted: “What investigators choose to make public over the coming days — and how — depends on behind-the-scenes negotiations between Ankara and Riyadh…”


Khashoggi’s writings

On repressive rule

September 18, 2017: With young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, he promised an embrace of social and economic reform… But all I see now is the recent wave of arrests… I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison… I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.

On ‘Black Panther’

April 17, 2018: This Wednesday, Disney’s blockbuster “Black Panther” will be shown in theaters in Saudi Arabia… At the end of the film, the young king of Wakanda chooses to use his country’s power to engage with the world for the greater good. Will Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who likely will soon become king of his country, use his power to bring peace to the world around him?

‘Predicament’ for Saudis

May 21, 2018: We are being asked to abandon any hope of political freedom, and to keep quiet about arrests and travel bans… We are expected to vigorously applaud social reforms and heap praise on the crown prince while avoiding any reference to the pioneering Saudis who dared to address these issues decades ago…

(Excerpts from Jamal Khashoggi’s column in The Washington Post)


Mohammed bin Salman

Ruthless and reformist

King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud made his son Mohammed bin Salman Minister of Defence in 2015 and, in 2017, elevated him to Crown Prince. Today, Mohammed bin Salman, or ‘MBS’, is the most influential figure in Saudi Arabia and the power behind the throne. He is 33, and is expected to shape the destiny of his country and of the region for decades.

MBS’s critics say he is impetuous and reckless, ruthless, and intolerant of dissent. But he has also shown himself to be a moderniser who wants to bring economic and social change.

Soon after becoming Defence Minister, MBS launch a military campaign in Yemen. After 2½ years, the gains are questionable, and Yemen faces a terrible humanitarian crisis. In 2017, he spearheaded a boycott of Qatar, which it accused of supporting terrorism. He has ordered a crackdown on his opponents among clerics and intellectuals, and on the corrupt Saudi elite; 11 princes, four ministers, and many businessmen were detained.

At the same time, he has announced plans to end Saudi Arabia’s “addiction” to oil, declared his intention to change the education system, and have more women in the workforce. This year, the country allowed women at a football game for the first time, and invited applications for women to join the military. The Prince has said the return of a “moderate Islam” is his goal.

Jamal Khashoggi

Insider and critic

Jamal Khashoggi, 59, is a veteran journalist and opinionmaker who went to college in the US and, from the late 1970s, was a friend of Osama bin Laden whom he met as a reporter in Afghanistan. He travelled with Osama, and wrote one of the first profiles of the al-Qaeda founder in 1988. But he remained opposed to Osama’s Islamist radicalism — and despite having been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood at one time, became increasingly secularised subsequently.

In 2003 and in 2007, Khashoggi was appointed editor of the Saudi newspaper Al Watan, but lost his job on both occasions after publishing criticism of religious extremism. In 2015, he launched a TV network, Al-Arab, which was shut down within days. Despite being an “insider” closely associated with the power elite, he remained “the kind of journalist who annoys the authorities”, his colleague at The Washington Post, David Ignatius, wrote this week.

As these “authorities” came to increasingly represent Mohammed bin Salman after 2015, Khashoggi’s criticism found a focused target. According to Ignatius, he thought the Crown Prince was an “impulsive hothead”. In 2017, Khashoggi moved to Washington DC, where he continued his criticism of the Prince through his column in The Washington Post.

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