Middle East: Saudi Arabia
Asia / Europe: Turkey
Americas: United States
Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Khashoggi disappears following visit to consulate in Turkey
A notable Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, disappeared following a visit to the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Khashoggi had not been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2nd, 2018. Turkish investigators alleged that a 15-man Saudi team had him killed in the consulate and that Khashoggi was dismembered. Furthermore, Turkish investigators have stated they have audio and video evidence that Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate.
The issue constituted a significant threat to Saudi-Turkey relations as well as the public image of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has cast himself as a reformer. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a brief answer when questioned about it at a news conference on October 7th, 2018, but stated the government “will inform the world about it.” The Saudi consulate forcefully denied the allegations and “expressed doubt that they came from Turkish officials that are informed of the investigation.”
United States-Saudi relations were also tested since President Donald Trump and his inner circle, most particularly, his son in law, Jared Kushner, had considered the Saudi crown prince a reliable ally. In a 60 Minutes interview that aired on October 14th, 2018, President Trump made the following statement on the question as to whether or not Saudi Arabia had Khashoggi killed: "There's a lot at stake. And, maybe especially so because this man was a reporter. There's something -- you'll be surprised to hear me say that, there's something really terrible and disgusting about that if that was the case so we're going to have to see. We're going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment." Nevertheless, the President seemed reluctant to let the situation affect the status quo between the two nations as he was reluctant to withdraw a $110 billion arms deal he brokered with Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi was a resident of the United States and was employed with the noted publication, the Washington Post as a columnist where he would have continued being critical of Saudi Arabia. Before becoming a dissident, Khashoggi had long been a prominent Saudi insider. Indeed, he had been a trusted advisor to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former director of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence apparatus as well as a former ambassador to the United States.
Khashoggi used to be a popular contact for United States reporters who wanted to know about the inner workings of the Saudi rulership. But when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman consolidated power and began to crackdown on dissent (all the while trying to portray himself as a reformer based on decisions like allowing women to drive), Khashoggi fled to the United States where he was critical of key policies and initiatives, such as Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
The reason Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate in Instanbul was because he wanted to marry a graduate student living in Instanbul, but when he fled Saudi Arabia, it led to divorce from his previous wife. Turkish law required certification of that divorce before Khashoggi could marry his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. It should be noted that Cengiz thought Khashoggi going to consulate was a mistake, but Khashoggi was skeptical that Saudi Arabia would take any action in Turkey. She waited hours for him to emerge from the consulate, but he never did.
Over the course of the next week, the emerging explanation, based on leaked accounts from key Turkish officials, was that Khashoggi was tortured and murdered at the Saudi consulate by a team of 15 Saudi assassins. The emerging (albeit unproven) explanation also postulated that Khashoggi's body was dismembered using a bone saw -- a gruesome process presumably to remove the body without detection.
With the leaked news that Khashoggi was very likely killed by 15-man Saudi team and dismembered, and hints that videotaped footage and audio evidence existed bolstering that theory, there was pressure on Turkish officials to carry out an investigation. To that end, a search of the Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi was allegedly murdered began in mid-October 2018. Hopes that the investigation would entail a full forensic sweep of the building were dashed when Turkish officials seen entering the consulate without protective gear.
Pressure was building on Saudi Arabia as France, Germany, and the United Kimgdom demanded that Riyadh produce a credible explanation about the fate of Khashoggi. There were also significant repercussion to the Saudi Kingdom as international corporations and media outlets withdrew from the “Future Investment Initiative Conference” scheduled to be held in Riyadh from Oct. 23, 2018 to Oct. 25, 2018. That conference, known as "Davos in the Desert," was intended to highlight the Crown Crown Prince’s proposed reforms for the kingdom and thus attract investment. With that event as well as the Saudi reputation at stake, Saudi Arabian King Salman ordered a formal internal investigation into the case.
For its part, the United States was not leading the charge to demand answers about the fate of Khashoggi, despite the man's status as a United States resident and a journalist. While President Donald Trump had earlier suggested that there would be "severe punishment" should anything nefarious be determined about Khashoggi's disappearance, he seemed reticent to take much concrete action against the Saudis. Instead, he was focused on preserving his arms sales deal with them. Also of note was President Donald Trump's apparent easy acceptance of the "flat denial" given by the Saudi monarch of the assassination claims, as well as his dismissal of Khashoggi as "not an American citizen."
Perhaps most bizarre was President Trump's adoption of the emerging Saudi explanation of Khashoggi's disappearance, which was that he was assassinated by "rogue killers." In remarks to journalists, Trump said, "It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows." Nevertheless, United States Secretary of State of Mike Pompeo was to travel to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman.
In a subsequent interview with the Associated Press, President Trump noted that he had spoken with Crown Prince and that both the young ruler nor his father, King Salman knew anything about the Khashoggi disappearance. Trump appeared to accept the Saudis' denials of knowledge, along with their promise to investigate themselves on the matter. He said. "I think the investigation will lead to an answer. And they’re going to do a very thorough investigation. I believe they’re working with Turkey."
When asked by the Associated Press if he believed the account of ignorance provided by the king and the crown prince, Trump replied: "Well, I think we have to find out what happened first. You know, here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh. And he was innocent all the way. So I was unconcerned. So we have to find out what happened and they are doing a very major investigation."
Saudi Arabia for two weeks steadfastly denied any allegations that it was instrumental in the death of Khashoggi, while simultaneously failing to provide any proof of life for the dissident journalist. But on Oct. 15, 2018, David Gelles, an executive produer at CNN, said that the Saudis were "preparing a report that will acknowledge Khashoggi's death was the result of an interrogation that went wrong." According to Gelles, reporting by Clarissa Ward and Tim Lister had revealed that the Saudis would contend that the operation was intended to abduct Khashoggi from Turkey, but he was inadvertently killed during the interrogation process. It was yet to be seen if this explanation would withstand the heat of scrutiny.
It was later reported by the Washington Post that the Trump administration and the Saudi royal family were trying to find "a mutually agreeable explanation" for the death of Khashoggi, and specifically, one that would "avoid implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman," since he was one of President Trump's closest foreign allies. That effort was expected to be arduous since there was increasing evidence that 1. the Saudi government was aware of what happened to Khashoggi’ despite claims of ignorance, and 2. there were connections to the Crown Prince himself.
Denise Youngblood Coleman, PhD.
President and Editor in Chief
-- Oct. 16, 2018