There’s more than a little irony inherent in a story about Erdogan’s AK Party launching an investigation to figure out what happened to a journalist who appears to have fallen victim to foul play.
Erdogan is notorious for cracking down on dissent in all its various manifestations including and especially critical press outlets, so there’s something laughably disingenuous about the following quote from Omer Celik:
A journalist disappearing in such a way is something a confident country like Turkey will look at sensitively. The condition of the lost journalist, details on him and who is responsible for this will be uncovered.
Yeah, ok. AKP will take any and all measures necessary to track down “lost” journalists, unless of course Erdogan is the one who “lost” them, in which case they have a tendency to stay “lost”.
In this case, though, the “lost” journalist is Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi monarchy who entered the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday in order to obtain the necessary papers for his upcoming marriage only to never come out again.
His fiancee – who waited outside – hasn’t heard from him since.
Here’s a detailed account from the Washington Post, to which Khashoggi has contributed articles in the past:
Khashoggi first visited the consulate on Sept. 28 to obtain a document related to his upcoming wedding, according to his fiancee and friends. He returned to the consulate on Tuesday, at about 1:30 p.m., concerned that he might not be allowed to leave, according to his fiance, Hatice Cengiz.
Khashoggi left his phone with her, along with instructions that she should call a member of Turkey’s governing party if he did not emerge. After waiting more than four hours, Cengiz called the police, she said.
The problem here for the Saudis is that Khashoggi is (or I guess “was” is probably more accurate now) no “regular” dissident. Khashoggi is well known in the Arab world, was an editor for Saudi news outlets and used to advise Prince Turki al-Faisal.
Khashoggi went into self-imposed exile in the U.S. last year, just before Mohammed bin Salman started arresting folks on “corruption” charges (and the scare quotes are there for a reason). His columns have often been critical of the Crown Prince. His first article for the Washington Post, for instance, was published on September 18, 2017, and carries the headline “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable.” Here are a couple of excerpts:
With young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, he promised an embrace of social and economic reform. He spoke of making our country more open and tolerant and promised that he would address the things that hold back our progress, such as the ban on women driving.
But all I see now is the recent wave of arrests. Last week, about 30 people were reportedly rounded up by authorities, ahead of the crown prince’s ascension to the throne.
Less than two months after Khashoggi wrote those words, bin Salman launched his infamous corruption crackdown that found the Crown Prince locking fellow princes, ministers and high profile businessmen (most notably, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal) in the the Ritz Carlton.
Ultimately, bin Salman used the “corruption” excuse to extract tens of billions of dollars in settlement payments from the accused and the months-long farce also underscored the notion that when bin Salman replaced his cousin Muhammad bin Nayef as heir to the throne five months previous, it effectively meant that the keys to the Kingdom were his.
In the same column for the Post excerpted above, Khashoggi described his plight as a kind of microcosm:
In 2003 and again in 2010, I was fired from my job as editor in chief of a “progressive” paper, Al-Watan. During the years in between, I served as media adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Britain and then the United States. Perhaps it seems odd to be fired by the government and then serve it abroad. Yet that is truly the Saudi paradox. In the starkest terms, Saudi Arabia is trying to moderate the extreme viewpoints of both liberal reformers and conservative clerics. And the arrests span that spectrum.
It doesn’t take a detective to figure out what happened to Khashoggi on Tuesday. If you’re a prominent critic of bin Salman and you enter a Saudi consulate and don’t come out, you’ve probably been killed. And that’s just what Turkey thinks happened. Here’s what one Turkish official told Reuters this weekend:
The initial assessment of the Turkish police is that Mr. Khashoggi has been killed at the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul. We believe that the murder was premeditated and the body was subsequently moved out of the consulate.
The Saudis claim that’s nonsense. Consul-general Mohammad al-Otaibi actually took Reuters on a tour of the consulate, “opening cupboards, filing cabinets and wooden panels covering air conditioning units”, I guess to prove that Khashoggi’s severed limbs weren’t stashed away next to the plates, or filed away with some loose documents or crammed into the ducts.
Two sources told the Washington Post that Turkey believes bin Salman likely sent a hit squad to Turkey earlier this week. Ankara reportedly believes the team was comprised of 15 people, dispatched “specifically for the murder”.
“If those who say he was kidnapped are focusing on his being in the mission, these are just rumors that have no proof,” the above-mentioned al-Otaibi told Reuters, before lamenting that “some of the statements that have been made by Turkish officials who insist that (Khashoggi is) in the consulate [aren’t] being built on facts.”
You can write your own jokes, but Turkey claims nobody saw Khashoggi leaving the building after he went in and the Saudis have yet to provide any proof of their contention that he in fact exited the building shortly after entering it.
For his part, bin Salman told Bloomberg this on Friday:
The premises are sovereign territory, but we will allow them to enter and search and do whatever they want to do. We have nothing to hide.
That’s probably accurate. Khashoggi (or whatever’s left of him) probably isn’t in the consulate anymore, so the Saudis likely don’t have anything to “hide”.
Morbid humor aside, this is a serious issue for bin Salman, coming as it does just two months after a rather remarkable escalation in the Kingdom’s diplomatic spat with Canada, whose long running efforts to secure the release of Raif Badawi reached a fever pitch after Badawi’s sister was arrested.
Now, bin Salman is staring down another diplomatic nightmare, this time with a fellow autocrat.
Relations between Ankara and Riyadh have been strained over the past couple of years, with Turkey backing Qatar during last year’s Saudi-led embargo.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if Erdogan comes to believe bin Salman is murdering people in Istanbul, he (Erdogan) will lose his damn mind. In other words: This appears to set the stage for a bitter diplomatic row between Ankara and Riyadh at a time when Qatar and Turkey are seemingly closer than ever after Doha offered Erdogan a financial lifeline amid the collapse of the lira in August.
A spokesman for Erdogan told Reuters that AKP is going to figure out what happened to Khashoggi come hell or high water, which means this is likely to get really interesting, really fast, if bin Salman doesn’t figure out a way to defuse the situation.