Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and Saudi native who is known for being critical of the current Saudi regime, is missing. His wife says she accompanied him to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and has been for more than 24 hours. Saudi officials deny that this is true. Turkish officials say that it is true. The situation is at an apparent standstill, and it threatens to drive a wedge between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Turkey is involved not only because Khashoggi was last seen at the consulate in Ankara, but also because his fiancée is Turkish. While she continues to wait outside of the consulate, it appears as if Saudi officials have no intention of acknowledging that he is there. In fact, they are maintaining that he has left.
A Saudi official said the journalist wasn’t inside. “Mr. Khashoggi visited the consulate to request paperwork related to his marital status and exited shortly thereafter,” the official said. “He is not in the consulate nor in Saudi custody.” (WSJ)
There are a couple distinct possibilities in this scenario. Either Khashoggi’s fiancée is lying, the Saudi government is lying, or Khashoggi willfully vanished himself, leaving his bride-to-be in wait. While a runaway groom scenario is possible, Khashoggi was visiting the consulate to obtain a marriage license, and it seems the least likely of the three possibilities. One has to assume that his fiancée is not making the entire scenario up, either.
Which means, as you may have deduced, that it’s most likely Saudi government officials are not being completely upfront about the whereabouts or status of Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia is making a conscious push to appear a modern regime, allowing women to drive, opening up more western entertainment venues, saying they welcome foreign investment, and generally breaking from their past. But, despite this, Freedom House describes Saudi Arabia as far from modern when it comes to journalistic freedom.
‘Despite a change of administration, Saudi Arabia continues to have one of the most restricted media environments in the world. Although social media has provided a conduit for access to news, it too is being suppressed as the government seeks to silence criticism of its domestic policies and its war in Yemen.’ (Freedom House)
Particularly telling is their description of how journalists who speak critically of the regime, and more specifically of the government’s role in Yemen, are treated.
‘Writers and activists critical of the Saudi regime continued to face harsh punitive measures in 2015, something that remains unchanged despite changes wrought by the death of King Abdullah and the accession of King Salman.
Amid the continuing military offensive in Yemen, the Saudi government aimed to shape media coverage, cracking down on domestic dissent and restricting access to Yemen by foreign journalists.’ (Freedom House)
The war in Yemen was the primary gripe that Khashoggi, who has a wide reach as a columnist for the Washington Post, had with the Saudi regime. Many believe that his persistent critiques of the Crown Prince are at the heart of the current situation, and it seems that the Saudi government would have the most to gain from a silenced Khashoggi. Ironically, Khashoggi also spoke out against the kingdom’s crackdown on journalists.
Perhaps Khashoggi believed that a simple visit to the Saudi consulate would be harmless, that his self-imposed exile in Turkey, which had followed time spent living in Washington, D.C. this past year, put enough distance between himself and the reach of the Saudi government. But it appears that he was wrong, and his disappearance has shone a light on just how far Saudi officials may be willing to stifle dissent.
It’s also an unfortunate development in the relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who were already at odds due to systemic regional power grabs. Their relationship was made even worse when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan took sides with Qatar last year during their ongoing conflict with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has demanded that Turkey remove 5,000 troops from Doha, Qatar. Turkey did the opposite, sending even more troops to ward off any potential aggression, and as a clear indication that Erdogan has no intention of marching to Riyadh’s drum. Yet another point of contention has been Turkey’s sympathetic treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia considers to be a terror organization.
The latest development involving Khashoggi will not bring the allies any closer, and Turkey could very well respond hostilely if they see the disappearance of the journalist to be an intentional slight to their sovereignty.