Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan argues that the mysterious disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi could be Riyadh’s way of sending out a message to its critics that Saudi security can reach them wherever they may be.
The Turkish security authorities have yet to live up to their promise to reveal full details, with supporting video evidence, of the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi since he went into his country’s consulate in Istanbul last Tuesday.
We had expected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to offer some convincing explanations when he spoke about the subject on Sunday, and to provide answers to some of the questions being asked. Above all: Is he still alive or was he killed? If he is alive, is he still in Turkey? And if he was killed, where is his body?
Erdogan made the situation even more obscure when he declared that he – just like the rest us – is waiting for the outcome of investigations and hopes “that we will not come across an undesirable situation.”
This despite the fact that two of his advisors, Yasin Taksay and Turan Kislakci, had earlier quoted senior security sources as saying that Khashoggi had been murdered. But they did not say how, nor how the body was removed from the premises or to where it was taken – not least because, according to the Saudi consul, the CCTV cameras at the building were not working at the time Khashoggi entered. Was that a coincidence or deliberate?
Adding further mystery to the affair was the account provided by Turkish authorities of the arrival of 15 Saudis, thought to be special security operatives, in Istanbul on two private planes on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance. They were at the consulate when he went in at 1:00pm on Tuesday, leaving his fiancé Hatice Cengiz in the waiting room.
According to this account, the men left shortly afterwards in cars with tinted windows. What baggage did they take with them, and what was in it? Did they take the victim’s body out after dismembering it, or did they take him out alive to some other place and eliminate him there?
There are two theories. One is that the Saudi security team was sent to Istanbul with the specific task of killing Khashoggi, perhaps after interrogating him about various issues, notably his links to the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar. The second is that the delegation went to negotiate with him and arrive at a deal that would result in him returning to Riyadh.
These theories were put forward by a top Turkish journalist who spoke to Raialyoum. She did not rule out either possibility, but thought the former more plausible.
Meanwhile, we received a surprise phone call on Sunday from “H.A.,” a woman living in an Arab country who affirmed that she was Khashoggi’s fourth wife. She said they had married in New York last Ramadan. The ceremony was performed by the imam of the city’s Muslim centre, whose first name she identified as Anwar, with two men of Palestinian origin as witnesses.
She said she had photographs of the small wedding party they held, and that this could be confirmed by the Sheraton Hotel’s CCTV footage. She said she last saw Jamal on 7 September in the same city at the same hotel and last spoke to him by phone on 25 September. Their last contact was on 30 September when he sent her a text message on her birthday.
The woman said Khashoggi was depressed, aprehensive and feeling lonely. He wanted a partner who would live with him – she had refused to move to live with him permanently – and was considering getting married to a Syrian refugee in Turkey. She added that he was nearly broke and heavily in debt, and had several times thought of returning to his country and sorting his situation out.
We cannot confirm this story, although the source is well known to us. But it could well be correct, as she was an admirer of the journalist and his writing and the two were in regularly contact before they married.
No dissent tolerated
The Saudi authorities do not tolerate opposition, even the most mildly critical and the most even-handed and objective like Jamal Khashoggi’s. His articles and statements about the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia were more like the proffering of advice, aimed at instituting reforms under the auspices of the regime.
In his tweets (he has more than half a million followers) he applauded the lifting of the driving ban and other restrictions on women driving. But he did not hesitate to criticise the subsequent arrest of women’s rights activists on charges of colluding with foreign embassies. Yet he was one of the most vocal supporters of the war on Yemen in its first few months, and also of Saudi intervention in Syria.
Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman applies the principle of “if you’re not with us you’re against us.” He does not tolerate neutrality or impartiality. The famous preacher Dr. Salman al-Awda was jailed and charged with terrorism merely for advocating dialogue with Qatar. Economist Issam al-Zamel was subjected to the same treatment for gently criticising the proposed sale of part of Saudi Aramco. The death penalties demanded by the prosecutor for them and several other detainees illustrate the iron-fist policy pursued by Bin Salman.
At the weekend, the Crown Prince indicated that there were no more than 1,500 political detainees in Saudi Arabia. He deemed that to be a small number compared to the tens of thousands arrested in Turkey after the failed military coup. His interviewers could have pointed out that the Saudi detainees were not involved in any coup, even if some had called or fundamental reforms and greater political freedom.
If it is confirmed that Saudi intelligence was behind Khashoggi’s disappearance, they targeted a “big fish” who was well known in the Arab world and internationally. The aim is to intimidate all Saudi dissidents and send out a message to critics both at home and abroad that Saudi security has long arms that can reach them wherever they may be.
Another component of the message is to undermine Turkey’s image as a refuge for Saudi, Yemeni, Egyptian and other opponents of the Kingdom, and to signal that it is not a safe haven. The affair has highlighted lapses in the performance of the Turkish security forces: especially the way they allowed the special Saudi unit to enter and leave the country – and to spirit Khashoggi out of the consulate dead or alive – without any impediment.
We do not want to pre-empt developments or make premature judgements. The fate of our fellow journalist is not known. All the leaks so far have been mere speculation, so we are inclined to emulate Erdogan, i.e. to wait for the outcome of the investigation before taking a firm position.
We stand in full solidarity with Jamal Khashoggi and condemn all who had a hand in his disappearance and possible death. We have known him as a fierce defender of freedom, critic of the crackdown in his country and advocate of democracy who respects opposing views – while differing with him on some issues. We can only hold on to the glimmer of hope held out by Erdogan that he might be alive. He served his country faithfully for four decades and deserves to be honoured by it, not abducted, tortured and killed.