A journalist walks into a diplomatic mission – and disappears. Soon, the stories start flying: he has been brutally tortured and killed, his body cut up into pieces and then smuggled out of the country by a hit squad sent specifically to murder him.
Did it happen? In Turkey, government sources say it did, and that they have the evidence to prove it. The journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, was probably one of the best known commentators and analysts in the Arab world, a Saudi living in self-imposed exile in the US who for many years had been close to, and trusted by, the Saudi royal family, but who more recently had become a critic of the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
He entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October – by appointment, to sort out documents for his planned wedding to his Turkish fiancée – and was never seen again. Hence the story that he was murdered.
But hold on a minute. These are murky waters. If the Turks do have evidence for their gruesome theory of what might have been happened to Khashoggi, they have yet to provide it. And they are really in no position to come over all outraged over the ill-treatment of journalists, having imprisoned at least a hundred and fifty of their own. Turkey is not exactly the first country I would turn to when looking for someone to defend the free press.
What’s more, the Turkish version of events has changed since officials first aired the murder theory. After a Presidential adviser said on 7 October: ‘My sense is that [Khashoggi] has been killed’, a pro-government newspaper later reported: ‘He is not dead, but abducted.’
And if, as has been reported, the Turks have now agreed to a Saudi suggestion that they should set up a ‘joint working group’ to investigate what has happened to Khashoggi, it may be that both governments have decided that they need to find a way to defuse the row.
To add to the confusion, the online news site Middle East Eye has quoted ‘a Turkish source with direct knowledge of the investigation’ as saying: ‘We know when Jamal was killed, in which room he was killed and where the body was taken to be dismembered.’ (The Saudis have claimed that Middle East Eye is financed by its Gulf rival Qatar, which it has always denied.)
And according to the Washington Post, for which Khashoggi was a regular columnist, the Turkish authorities have told US officials that they have ‘persuasive and gruesome’ audio and video recordings from inside the consulate that prove that he was killed.
I suspect that until this story broke, you had never heard of Jamal Khashoggi. He was (is?), however, a well-known figure among those who follow events in the Arab world – for many years, he was one of the few Saudi journalists permitted by the authorities to talk to Western media on behalf of the royal family. (I interviewed him many times during my time at the BBC, and he was always worth listening to.)
So why should you care about his fate? Because Saudi Arabia is a key Western ally in the Arab world, and its supposedly reformist crown prince is best buddies with Donald Trump’s Middle East plenipotentiary – and son-in-law – Jared Kushner.
And because Turkey is a member of NATO, and, like Saudi Arabia, heavily involved in Syria. They each have their own interests on that blood-soaked battlefield, which means that the future relationship between these two regional rivals matters to many more people than just the friends and family of Jamal Khashoggi.
If the Saudis have indeed murdered him, they won’t have been the first to kill off dissidents, opponents and critics in foreign lands. President Putin of Russia has a particularly grim record in this regard, and in the past, Israel has similarly murdered many Palestinians around the world whom it regarded as ‘terrorists’. It also kidnapped the nuclear weapons whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu in Rome in 1986.
(And while we’re on the subject, let’s not ignore the so-called ‘extraordinary renditions’ carried out by the US and its allies after 9/11, which were, after all, no more than illegal abductions by another name.)
Until now, the Saudis seem to have preferred abduction to murder. Last March, a prominent campaigner on behalf of women drivers in Saudi Arabia, Loujain al-Hathloul, was grabbed in the United Arab Emirates, and the Saudi poet Nawaf al-Rashid was seized in Kuwait.
So what’s going on? The Saudi crown prince is a young man -- he’s only 33 – but he is a man in a hurry, with little taste for opposition or criticism. He wants the world to believe that he is a genuine reformer – after all, didn’t he allow women to drive? – while waging a vicious war in Yemen in which tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and thousands more face death by starvation or disease.
If Jamal Khashoggi has been murdered, or if the Saudis are unable to furnish a credible explanation for his disappearance, Western governments must react as decisively as they did against Russia after the attempted murders of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
It simply won’t do to repeat the old mantra: ‘We need the Saudi royals on our side, because if they fall, what comes next will be even worse’.
No more arms sales. No more red-carpet treatment for Saudi royals in their gold-plated limousines and outsize yachts. And a clear denunciation of a brutal regime which still thinks it is indispensable to the West.
Mind you, it won’t come from the White House. Although President Trump has acknowledged that ‘what happened is a terrible thing, assuming that happened’, he went on to add that he didn’t like the idea of halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia because, after all, ‘this took place in Turkey and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen.’
What’s more, nearly two years after he took office, he still hasn’t got round to appointing ambassadors in either Ankara or Riyadh. Who needs ambassadors when you have a son-in-law? And it may not be entirely irrelevant that in the past, Trump has done some highly advantageous deals with the Saudis.
Nearly four years ago, when the Prince of Wales and David Cameron rushed off to attend the funeral of King Abdullah, I called the Saudi royals ‘not the kind of people we should be doing business with.’
Crown Prince Mohammad has tried to persuade the world that he represents a new, reform-minded, forward-looking Saudi Arabia. After the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, his handsomely-remunerated PR teams are going to have to put in many more hours before we’re convinced.