Khashoggi made an example to scare critics of Saudi rulers

The disappearance and suspected death of prominent Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has shocked his friends and observers of Saudi politics.

Khashoggi, who has lived for the past year as a resident of the United States, went to the consulate on Oct. 2 to get documents for his wedding to a Turkish citizen. His fiancée and Turkish officials say he never came out.

“He was a very nice, approachable guy,” said Thomas Lippman, an author and Saudi Arabia specialist at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“Everybody knew Jamal. If you were in the business of writing about (Saudi Arabia), or if you were a diplomat or journalist or (someone) having anything to do with Saudi Arabia in the past 20 years, you knew Jamal.”

Khashoggi previously had close ties to Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud and worked for the Saudi ambassador to the United States before becoming increasingly critical of the kingdom. Last October he decided to move away from Saudi Arabia and became a regular contributor to the Washington Post.

“He’d been told to be quiet,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington who has known Khashoggi for years.

“He was very clear that he left the kingdom not because he was fearful for his life or his liberty, but he wanted to save his career,” Ibish told Ahval.

Anonymous Turkish security officials have told local press that a 15-member Saudi team (allegedly including a forensic pathologist) entered the consulate soon before Khashoggi arrived, and this is corroborated with CCTV footage and media reports. Saudi officials have denied involvement, but cannot offer evidence for a plausible explanation.

“It’s up to Saudi Arabia to provide evidence of what happened to him,” said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch. “There’s just been kind of these vague denials that I frankly don’t find very believable.”

Ibish thinks Riyadh may have considered Khashoggi a threat because of his considerable influence in Washington.

“He was being critical, in a high profile way, in Washington D.C., and in Arabic. All of that could be highly annoying, but that’s never resulted in an assassination or even an abduction,” Ibish said, cautioning that this is just speculation since so few details are known.

Though Khashoggi told the BBC he was afraid to return to the kingdom, Lippman said, “he hadn’t developed what you might call the self-protective instincts of a guy who’s always looking over his shoulder”.

Khashoggi criticised many of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies, such as oppression of critics, the war in Yemen and close relations with U.S. President Donald Trump, but he did not consider himself a dissident and was not against the monarchy.

Bin Salman (also known as MBS), the kingdom’s de facto ruler, has consolidated power to an extent never seen before.

“The old system, a much more diffuse set of personal fiefdoms within the royal family and elsewhere, and checks and balances that used to exist, has been dismantled,” Ibish said.

The crown prince has been praised for engineering unprecedented reforms such as allowing women to drive and reducing the power of the religious police, but they have not resulted in more political freedom.

“Space is being opened socially and economically, but not politically,” Ibish said.

In fact, bin Salman has accelerated persecution of perceived opponents, going after even mild critics, and has crushed dissent even more than previous leaders of one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

“Human rights activists were certainly locked up before we even knew who MBS was, (but) I think we’ve reached a different level now, where more people are being arrested, the charges are more and more frivolous, and they’re seeking harsher sentences for them,” Coogle said.

This crackdown has created an environment of fear within the kingdom.

Lippman said Saudi friends had recently told him “if I came to Riyadh today, they couldn’t have the kinds of conversations they had with me in the past.”

If Saudi officials are in fact responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance, it is not the first time the kingdom has pursued its perceived enemies abroad.

In March, women’s-rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was detained in Abu Dhabi, taken to Saudi Arabia and imprisoned. According to a BBC report, three outspoken Saudi princes have been kidnapped from abroad in recent years, with one of them violently drugged.

Khashoggi’s disappearance has sent a chill amongst the ever-growing numbers of outspoken members of the Saudi diaspora.

“Everybody’s scared,” said Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi dissident and analyst with the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington.

“The Saudis want to make an example of (Khashoggi) so he won’t give others ideas about defecting.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in an uncharacteristically restrained response, has called on the Saudis to prove that Khashoggi left the consulate.

Soner Çağaptay, Beyer fellow & director of the Turkish programme at the Washington Institute, told Ahval that Turkey had few allies in the region, and its economy had been devastated by inflation and U.S. sanctions.

“Turkey’s economy is still brittle, and I don’t think Erdoğan wants to enter into a long, drawn-out conflict with the Saudis and their rich Gulf allies, a fight that could … further deteriorate the economy,” Çağaptay said.

Henri Barkey, an international relations professor at Lehigh University and senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council for Foreign Relations, said Turkey, which has imprisoned more than 100 journalists and tens of thousands of other perceived enemies at home as well as rendering up to 100 from overseas, does not have much credibility in criticising Saudi Arabia.

“The Turks are kidnapping people all over the world. It’s not as if the Turks (can say) ‘oh I’m shocked, I’m shocked this is happening’.”

Barkey said relations between Ankara and Riyadh are already shaky, thanks mostly to Turkey’s support for Qatar when Saudi Arabia and its allies cut off relations and imposed a blockade last year.

He said he suspected Erdoğan would try to benefit from the Khashoggi incident by extracting concessions from Riyadh in exchange for looking the other way.

“I think the Turks are going to be very Machiavellian about this and try to get the best out of it for themselves.”

As for the important Washington-Riyadh relationship, experts expressed doubt over whether the Trump White House, which is close to bin Salman and not known for being vocal about human rights abuses, would take its ally to task.

“I think the Trump administration has no interest in taking on Riyadh over this. They don’t care about human rights, they don’t care about Khashoggi,” Hussein said.

“The amount of atrocities (the Saudis) commit is never too much, especially for this White House,” Lippman said.

But Coogle said the incident had garnered a great deal of media attention, and he hoped for a political response.

“I don’t think (the Trump administration) cares a lot about human rights, but this may be a bridge too far even for them. This person was a Washington Post columnist. He’s someone that everybody knows.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.