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Jamal Khashoggi murder

Journalist silenced

Print edition : Nov 09, 2018 T+T-
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Jamal Khashoggi at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London on September 29.

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

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Saudi officials arrive at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on October 9. The Turkish authorities claim that a 15-member team was dispatched from Riyadh to carry out the killing.

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Khashoggi's Turkish fiancee, Hatice (left), and her friends wait at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 3.

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U.S. President Donald Trump holds a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington D.C., on March 20. The U.S. is poised to sell $2 billion worth of laser-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for use in Yemen.

The cold-blooded murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul turns the international spotlight on Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, but Saudi Arabia warns against any action against the kingdom.

THE disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi Arabian journalist in the first week of October, has brought the international spotlight on the kingdom and its de facto  ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He never came out of the premises. The authorities in Turkey concluded soon after that Khashoggi was killed brutally within the premises of the Saudi diplomatic compound. Khashoggi was close to the corridors of power in Riyadh before the political advent of the new Crown Prince. Besides being a prominent editor, Khasoggi was also adviser to senior Saudi officials, including the former Saudi security chief Turki al Faisal.

Khashoggi’s fortunes and influence waned after the rise of the brash Crown Prince and the open split within the Saudi royal family. Khashoggi had insisted that he was not a Saudi dissident and that his fight was only against the policies of the new Crown Prince and his authoritarian way of functioning. He was never openly critical of the institution of the monarchy though he did occasionally express support for the Muslim Brotherhood. 

It was only last year that Khashoggi became an open critic of the Saudi government’s domestic and international policies. He went into voluntary exile to the United States where he became a contributing editor in The Washington Post , an influential organ of the U.S. establishment. He had a permanent residency status in the U.S. and was living there after he left Saudi Arabia. His critical articles in The Washington Post  seem to have particularly riled the all-powerful Crown Prince and the senior officials close to him. 

Khashoggi had gone to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to complete paperwork regarding the annulment of his marriage to his wife in Saudi Arabia. He needed to complete the legal formalities in order to get married to his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. She and another friend had accompanied him to the gates of the consulate. Before entering the consulate, Khashoggi is said to have expressed apprehensions about his safety to his fiancée and a few of his close friends. When he failed to come out of the diplomatic compound, his fiancée alerted the police and Turkish government officials. 

Conclusive evidence

The Turkish authorities, including President Recep Erdogan, have concluded that Khashoggi did not leave the premises of the consulate alive. Turkish officials claim that they have conclusive evidence that the Saudi dissident was murdered in cold blood and his body dismembered. Turkey has said that it has audio and video proof to back up its claims. The Turkish authorities have already presented visual footage of Khashoggi walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. They have conveyed to the U.S. government that a special team was sent from Riyadh to commit the dastardly deed. 

The Turkish authorities have also provided footage of the two private planes that had taken off from Riyadh and landed in Istanbul. According to Turkey, 15 Saudi officials, among them a doctor specialising in forensic medicine, were seen disembarking from the plane. The Turkish authorities claim that the 15-member team was dispatched from Riyadh to carry out the killing. The medical doctor’s expertise, according to Turkish officials, was specifically used to dismember Khashoggi’s corpse into pieces for easy disposal. Ankara chose to not have a direct confrontation with Riyadh. Instead, for diplomatic and political reasons of its own, the Turkish government chose to involve Washington. In order to influence the Donald Trump administration on the Khashoggi issue, the Erdogan government released the U.S. pastor, Andrew Brunson. His arrest had triggered a big diplomatic spat between the two countries and had led to the Trump administration raising tariffs on many Turkish manufactured goods, including steel. 

Diplomatic move

Turkish officials now hope that the Trump administration will reciprocate by naming and shaming the Saudi government on the Khashoggi case. At the same time, the Turkish government hopes that the incident will help in stabilising bilateral relations with the U.S. Both the U.S. and Turkey are part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military alliance. The U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia were thick as thieves during most part of the seven years of civil war in Syria. Now Ankara is working more closely with Moscow as it tries to prevent further collateral damage to its interests in the region.

In the second week of October, Saudi Arabia sent a team headed by Khaled bin Faisal, a leading member of the royal family, to Ankara to meet the Turkish President. The Saudi King spoke with Erdogan after the visit of the Saudi delegation to the Turkish capital. Saudi Arabia is hoping to gain time and find a diplomatic way to wriggle out of the serious imbroglio it finds itself in. The Arab street as well as the international community are keenly watching and waiting for the outcome of the investigations into the murder of Khashoggi. Most people believe that the order to eliminate a Saudi citizen of the stature of Khashoggi could have come only from the highest levels of the Saudi government. 

Since taking over the levers of power in the kingdom, the Crown Prince, while cultivating an image of a “reformer”, has cracked down on citizens demanding equal rights for women and on other groups that dare to even mildly criticise government policy on economic and political issues. An economist who dared to question the rationale behind the Crown Prince’s proposal to partially privatise the national oil company, Aramco, has been imprisoned. Another dissident, the 29-year-old Loujain al Hathoul who fought for woman’s rights, was plucked from a busy street in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and transported to a Saudi jail. It is well known that it is the Crown Prince who is calling the shots in the kingdom, whether it be on the horrific war on impoverished Yemen or on the Palestinian issue. 

The Crown Prince seemed to be initially confident about riding out this particular storm, given the initial reaction from the U.S. President. Trump, despite calls from members of his own Republican Party, was reluctant in the beginning to openly blame the Crown Prince for l’affaire Khashoggi or take punitive action against the Saudi government. In the second week of October, he declared that the two countries continued to have “excellent” relations. 

Trump’s mindset

Trump, who is known for his transactional mindset, openly mused that if the U.S. stopped doing business with Saudi Arabia to punish the kingdom on issues relating to human rights, then other countries would step into the breach and deprive the U.S. of billions of dollars that it rakes in every year. “I would not be in favour of stopping a country from spending $110 billion—which is an all-time record—and let Russia have that money or China have that money,” Trump told Fox News. 

Not trying to hide his sympathies, Trump said that Saudi Arabia was not the only country with a bad human rights record in the region. He claimed that Iran and Syria were also guilty of serious crimes. Trump’s statement came despite assertions by U.S. intelligence agencies that there was little doubt that the assassination of Khashoggi could have only happened with the approval of the Crown Prince. They had picked up intercepts that revealed Saudi intelligence agencies discussing plans to lure Khashoggi back into the kingdom. With evidence piling up against the Saudi government, Trump started taking a tougher line by the third week of October. He told a television channel that “something really terrible and disgusting” had happened. “We’re going to get to the bottom of it, and there will be severe punishment,” Trump declared. 

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been given virtual charge of the West Asia peace process, is a close friend of the Crown Prince. Mohammed bin Salman had signed off on Kushner’s plan of completely disenfranchising Palestinians. Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of the Crown Prince, and the UAE have become virtual allies of Israel. The three countries have manipulated the Trump administration to repudiate the historic nuclear deal with Iran and reimpose U.S. sanctions on the country. The current Saudi and Israeli leadership would like nothing better than the U.S. starting a new war in the region. 

Senators demand sanctions

Even Republican Senators friendly with Saudi Arabia have started asking questions. A bipartisan group of Senators have, in a letter to the White House, demanded imposition of sanctions on the kingdom under the Magnitsky Act if it was found responsible for the disappearance of Khashoggi. 

Lindsay Graham, one of the most hawkish Republican Senators known for his extreme pro-Israel and anti-Iran stance, was among those critical of the Saudi government’s attempts to sweep the Khashoggi affair under the carpet. Graham said that with every passing day the finger of suspicion was pointing more to Saudi Arabia. “If the Crown Prince had something to do with this, I don’t see how he could be a legitimate leader on the international stage again,” Graham told the media. 

Top U.S. companies, including Uber, withdrew from an investment conference in Riyadh, billed as the “Davos in the Desert”, in the third week of October. Most European leaders who were scheduled to attend the event have cancelled their participation after the recent developments. The Crown Prince was seen mingling with the likes of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former French President Nikolas Sarkozy when the first edition of the conference was held last year. The Crown Prince bristles at any sort of criticism of the human rights record of his government. In September, he had downgraded relations with Canada, cancelled business contracts and withdrew Saudi students from the country after the Justin Trudeau government mildly criticised the crackdown on human rights groups in the Saudi kingdom. 

War against Yemen

International discomfiture with the Crown Prince has been building up for quite some time anyway. One of the first things he did after taking over the day-to-day running of the kingdom was to kick-start the bloody war against Yemen in tandem with his comrade-in-arms, Mohammed bin Zayed al Nayan, the Crown Prince of the UAE. The war, fought with Western weaponry, most of it originating from the U.S., has resulted in the total devastation of Yemen. The last two years have witnessed cholera epidemics and mass starvation. Children and women have faced the worst deprivation. 

In August, Saudi war planes targeted a school bus, killing more than 40 children. The United Nations has estimated that more than 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the Saudi Arabia-led war started three years ago. Many international aid agencies think that it is a conservative estimate. Yet, the West keeps on providing the latest weaponry to Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration is poised to sell $2 billion worth of laser-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for use in Yemen. In the past four months, there have been 37 documented instances of civilians being targeted by the Saudi-led coalition. 

This time, the Crown Prince will in all probability have to pay the price. President Trump has on several occasions claimed that the Saudi monarchy is dependent on American support for its survival. Recently, he went further and said that the monarchy would not be able to survive two weeks without U.S. backing. Washington may be on the lookout for a more presentable autocrat to replace the designated heir apparent. But Saudi Arabia has threatened to retaliate if the U.S. takes punitive action. If Saudi Arabia “receives any action, it will respond with greater action”, the Saudi Foreign Ministry has warned, while emphasising the kingdom’s “influential and vital role in the global economy”.

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