The United States has once again come down on its old ally, Saudi Arabia. This time, American leaders are concerned over the possible involvement of the kingdom’s leadership in the disappearance of a Saudi journalist. The saga began earlier this month when 59-year-old Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to collect documents he needed for his upcoming marriage. Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who waited for him outside the consulate, later told police he never came out of the building.
Khashoggi has not been heard from since.
That incident alone would have been strange enough. The plot thickens when considering the fact that Khashoggi, a regular contributor to the Washington Post and former editor-in-chief of the Saudi paper Al-Watan is well known for writing critically of the Saudi leadership, including Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, currently the de facto ruler of the Kingdom.
Khashoggi’s disappearance has since sparked a storm of outcry directed at the Saudi Arabian government. Turkey was the first to demand cooperation from the Saudis in its investigation on Khashoggi’s whereabouts. On 7 October, Turkish officials made an official demand that Turkey be given permission to search Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul to search for evidence. Police in Istanbul have already concluded that Khashoggi was murdered in the embassy.
Crown Prince Mohammed responded by flatly denying any involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, adding that Riyadh was “ready to welcome the Turkish government to go and search our premises,” because it had “nothing to hide” about the missing journalist.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that despite opening its doors to Turkish law enforcement, it was still on the Saudi’s to prove that Khashoggi was unharmed while visiting the embassy. “We have to get an outcome from this investigation as soon as possible. The consulate officials cannot save themselves by simply saying, ‘He has left,'” Erdogan said while on a visit to Budapest.
Non-governmental bodies have also come out against the Saudi authorities. The prestigious Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) made an official statement on the matter: “CPJ is alarmed by media reports that Jamal Khashoggi may have been killed inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.” CPJ’s Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney added that “The Saudi authorities must immediately give a full and credible accounting of what happened to Khashoggi inside its diplomatic mission. The country has stepped up its repression of critical journalists in the past year at home. We hope this has not now spread abroad.” Statement of several other human rights groups have dovetailed the claim that it is on Riyadh to prove their innocence.
Gulseren Yoleri of the Human Rights Association, for instance, wrote that “The Saudi Consulate cannot absolve itself of responsibility for this incident by allowing its premises to be searched…it has to prove that Jamal wasn’t oppressed at the consulate and that he left safely.”
Adding to the pressure on Saudi Arabia is emerging evidence of a possible hit squad sent from Riyadh shortly before Khashoggi went missing. According to Turkish media, Saudi special forces officers, intelligence officials, national guards and even a forensics expert were allegedly among a 15-person team that landed in Turkey on the very day Khashoggi visited the embassy. The details of the alleged group of assassins listed on flight manifests were leaked to Turkish news outlets. Reportedly, social media profiles of some of the alleged suspects link them to elite sections of the Saudi security apparatus. Knowledge of the team’s visit to Istanbul was largely what influenced the position of Turkish police that Khashoggi was murdered. Turkish officials also claim that “security footage” of the suspects from the surrounding area of the embassy supports that claim. Much of the footage hasn’t been released. The problem is, evidence is really incomplete. Unlike the roads outside the diplomatic mission, there is no camera coverage of the interior of the embassy, or the garage beneath it. The cars and their occupants remained out of sight for several hours before continuing to Atatürk airport.
No doubt more information will be forthcoming on this very suspicious series of events. But those are the facts as we currently know them. Now, to put them into a bit of context.
First off, on a slightly parenthetical note, it’s worth noting the irony of Turkey’s condemnation of Saudi Arabia in this case, considering that Turkey has been in recent years, and continues to be, one of the harshest regimes when it comes to persecuting journalists. Just putting that out there.
More importantly, from a geopolitical point of view is how this incident will affect Saudi Arabia’s standing with the West at large and the U.S. in particular.
Over the past several weeks, tensions have been building between U.S. and Saudi leaders, highlighted by President Donald Trump’s recent tirade against the Kingdom. This was likely triggered by Trump’s dislike of Saudi Arabia keeping their oil production lower than full capacity, a move that has contributed to rising oil prices over the past year. But there are other issues that for long have been making U.S. leaders uncomfortable with Saudi policy. Riyadh’s military escapades in Yemen, for instance, have been the subject of harsh criticism from American lawmakers. Strong indications that the country’s leadership offed a critical journalist is not a good thing to add to this mix. And as we’ve seen, the evidence does not look good for the Saudis.
Several U.S. lawmakers have already spoken out on the severe repercussions Saudi Arabia would suffer if their involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance is confirmed. Some officials have been explicit, warning Riyadh of economic consequences. Senator Lindsey Graham posted on social media that “if there was any truth to the allegations of wrongdoing by the Saudi government it would be devastating to the US-Saudi relationship and there will be a heavy price to be paid—economically and otherwise,” adding that “our country’s values should be and must be a cornerstone of our foreign policy with foes and allies alike.” A similar statement was heard from Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida who said that the U.S. should “respond strongly” if allegations on Khashoggi’s death proved true. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on Foreign Relations, called for an international consensus on punishing the Saudis, posting to his Twitter account that “if true, the international community must stand together and enforce consequences.” Menendez called on the State Department to “speak out forcefully against the silencing of Arab activists, dissidents and journalists.”
President Trump himself stated that the U.S. was “demanding” answers from the Saudi government and working closely with Turkey to find out what happened to the missing dissident. “It’s a very serious situation for us and for this White House,” Trump told reporters this week. “I want to see what happens and we’re working very closely with Turkey and I think we’ll get to the bottom of it.” According to reports from the White House, top administration officials, including John Bolton and Jared Kushner, contacted Prince Muhammad personally regarding the recent incident.
Everyone is sensing the same thing—a Saudi connection to Khashoggi’s sudden disappearance could finally be the incident to cause a major fracture with its long-time ally. Indeed this whole incident really highlights the unstable nature of U.S.-Saudi relations over the past seventy years. The oil-rich kingdom has been an asset for the U.S., not just in terms of energy, but also as a somewhat reliable partner in a region traditionally fraught with anti-Western sentiment. All along the way, however, the conflicting consideration of the Saudis have revealed themselves, weather it be during the Arab oil embargo of the U.S. during the 1970s in which Saudi Arabia participated, or in support delivered to the 9/11 hijackers during their stay in the U.S. prior to the attacks. In a sentence, Saudi Arabia has and likely always will be an Arab Muslim monarchy with agendas that deeply conflict with those of America and the West. A glimmer of hope appeared after Prince Muhammad’s purge of the government and subsequent take-over last year. Could it be that a real reformer has come into power in the ultra-conservative Arabian Peninsula? The facts on Khashoggi, along with all the systematic oppression of journalists by Muhammad prior to this, have dampened these hopes.
The Khashoggi scandal may go down in history as the thing that broke the 75-year-old alliance between America and its Saudi partners.