This article first appeared here on ForeignPolicy.com on October 9, 2018.
What in the world? No seriously, what the…? When it comes to Saudi Arabia these days, things could not get weirder or uglier. Last November, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman forced Lebanon’s Prime Minister to resign—from Riyadh in a television appearance that had all the characteristics of a hostage video. At the same time, Saudi authorities detained almost 400 people in the Ritz-Carlton over corruption charges, only to release them after they handed over significant sums of cash and assets in what appeared to be little more than a shakedown. This past spring and summer, the government began arresting women activists, some of whom had been at the forefront of the decades long fight to drive that ended with a lift on the ban in June, and declared them traitors. Then, in August, Saudi leaders lashed out at Canada over a tweet criticizing their treatment of oppositionists—canceling flights, preventing Saudi students on government scholarship from studying at Canadian universities, and transferring sick Saudis from Canada’s hospitals. All of this was going on against the backdrop of the ill-conceived war in Yemen.
And now, a Saudi journalist named Jamal Khashoggi—a onetime confidant of senior Saudi officials and princes—has vanished. He disappeared into Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2 and has not been heard from since. The Turks say he is dead, killed in the consulate by a hit team, with his body removed in boxes. The Saudis have declared this grisly tale nonsense and insist Khashoggi left the consulate not long after he arrived.
When the story broke on Saturday by way of a thinly sourced Reuters story followed by more substantial coverage from the Washington Post—where Khashoggi had become a columnist last year—a social media uproar ensued. Twitter was alight with frightened and outraged fellow journalists, analysts recounting a litany of alleged Saudi crimes, politicians demanding accountability, activists with maudlin paeans to a now apparently martyred critic, Saudis arguing that Khashoggi disappeared because he got cold feet over his impending marriage to a Turkish woman, and a few voices cautioning that the declarations of known Justice and Development Party (AKP) provocateurs and unnamed “Turkish security sources” should be taken with a grain of salt. It was a massive outpouring of bile and one-upmanship that was notable even by the notoriously low standards of Twitter.
The most important question has been left unanswered, of course: What happened to Jamal Khashoggi? It seems abundantly clear that he never left the consulate, and the Saudi explanation that they cannot prove it because their security cameras weren’t working that day has a “dog ate my homework” quality to it.
If he is not dead and really is a runaway groom, then surely someone must have seen him somewhere—there must be a trail of credit card charges, ATM transactions, or grainy footage from the departure gates at the airport in Istanbul before he made his getaway. For their part, Turkish police sources claim it was premeditated murder, but thus far they have not offered any proof. The Turkish state’s Anadolu news agency, which has often had a problem with the truth, added to the story with ominous reports that 15 Saudis flew into Istanbul aboard two different private jets, that this apparent hit team was in the consulate at the time of Khashoggi’s disappearance, and they all left on Oct. 2. Still, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to back away from these claims on Sunday, before taking a tougher stand the following day. Either he is being atypically diplomatic—the Saudis and Turks are wary of each other but have worked to remain cordial despite significant differences—or the Turks have suspicions, but little evidence of Saudi misdeeds.
It also seems odd that Khashoggi, who was fearful enough for his well-being to leave Saudi Arabia and live in self-imposed exile in the United States, believed that visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul—twice—was safe. The press reports that Khashoggi went there to obtain paperwork attesting to the fact that he is not married—he is divorced—before tying the knot with a 36-year old Turkish woman named Hatice Cengiz. To make things weirder, the Saudi press claims that Khashoggi’s son, who is still in Saudi Arabia, knows nothing of Cengiz and his father’s engagement to her. Of course, given the response to Khashoggi’s disappearance, the son is almost certainly under significant pressure to stick with Riyadh’s version of events.
One can imagine that the Saudi authorities, already paranoid about the Qataris and their allies, were suspicious of Khashoggi’s fiancee given her alleged connections to Qatar and someone in Erdogan’s inner circle named Yasin Aktay. He has been identified as a friend of Khashoggi’s and an “AKP advisor” in the press, but he is much more than that. Aktay is more like a troubleshooter and troublemaker on behalf of the Turkish president. Indeed, Cengiz’s Twitter feed reveals that she does follow people who are critics of Saudi Arabia, organizations known to enjoy Qatari funding, Muslim Brothers—to whom Khashoggi was sympathetic—and Turkey’s ruling party, but so do a lot of people, including myself.
Everything that everyone has said about Jamal Khashoggi to date remains speculation. The only thing that has been confirmed is that no one has seen the man in over a week. He is presumed dead.
Are there any lessons to be learned from this episode? A few. It is surprising that there are so many who seem all too willing to accept the version of events that are attributed to Turkish security sources. These claims were uncorroborated—and remain so—but were quickly accepted as fact. This does not mean that they are untrue, but Turkey is a country with a poor record of press freedom, and its leaders and their supporters have embraced disinformation as a political strategy and a tool of foreign policy. Even if the Turks have no incentive to lie, commentators should be cautious before engaging in public melodrama over Khashoggi’s fate based on Turkish leaks.
Second, the Saudis need to ask themselves why they have even less credibility than the Turks. It is likely that they will blame everyone but themselves for this state of affairs, but the disappearance of Khashoggi is just the latest in a list of bizarre series of events for which the Saudis have offered a variety of explanations that have more often than not been met with collective disbelief. No doubt there are dedicated Saudi critics out there who would assail the Saudis no matter what they do, but even to fair-minded observers, they seem guilty because their stories rarely add up, leading one to conclude that they must be guilty. To many, the Saudis are now cold-blooded killers, and Mohammed bin Salman is not a benevolent despot—an image that he and his advisors have cultivated—but a despot in the mold of Saddam Hussein.
Finally, and most poignantly, journalists, academics, dissidents, and oppositionists should fear for their lives. Governments have long targeted these groups, but now seems to be a particularly dangerous moment, especially for journalists. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been ordering the killing people he does not like at will—on St. Petersburg streets, at Washington hotels, in small British cities, and elsewhere. Turkey, the leading jailer of journalists in the world, has kidnapped followers of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen in Asia and Europe—and just before the Khashoggi disappearance, one of Erdogan’s closest advisors warned that Turkey’s dragnet would extend across the globe. Egypt is also a notorious jailer of reporters, holds countless other who oppose the regime, is responsible for the brutal death of an Italian graduate student, and killed at least 800 people in a Cairo neighborhood in a single morning in August 2013. China recently disappeared the Chinese head of Interpol and has interned a million people in concentration camps. Now, the Saudis stand accused of murder. If they did it, they will likely get away with it—not on Twitter or the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, but where it counts: in the White House.
Ours is an era of international thuggishness combined with a total absence of norms. That makes everyone a target.