Not safe in exile

The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi

Saudi officials confirmed on Oct. 20 that Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate after discussions descended into a violent altercation, resulting in his death; 18 have been arrested in connection to the allegedly accidental death.

Prominent Saudi journalist and self-exiled dissident Khashoggi disappeared on Oct. 2 after entering a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Khashoggi was last captured on video surveillance entering the consulate at 1:13 p.m. Turkish authorities have said they believe he was killed by a 15-member so-called assassination squad in a premeditated operation two hours after his arrival.

Khashoggi, who had previously been an adviser to the Saudi royal family and editor-in-chief for Saudi-based news channel Al-Arab, was known for his stark criticism of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and the jailing of rights activists.

Mehdi Hasan, a journalist who hosts segments for both The Intercept and Al Jazeera, interviewed Khashoggi alongside Saudi writer and MBS sympathizer Ali Shihabi in March 2018 during an Up Front debate titled, “Is Saudi Arabia’s MBS really a reformer?” During the debate, Khashoggi argued Saudi Arabia under MBS was becoming a dictatorship while likening the crown prince to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The initial assessment of the Turkish police is that Mr. Khashoggi has been killed at the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul,” a Turkish official told Reuters. “We believe that the murder was premeditated and the body was subsequently moved out of the consulate.”

A few hours after his arrival, a caravan of six cars bearing diplomatic plates left the embassy. It is believed Khashoggi’s body was in one of said cars, and his remains were subsequently flown back to Saudi Arabia.

Prior to the Saudi confession, a joint Saudi-Turkey investigation of the consulate found probable evidence of the murder carried out in the consulate on Oct. 15, with presence of hazardous materials and areas freshly painted.

Dr. Lee Shaker, associate professor in the department of communications at Portland State with a focus on political and mass communication as well as effects of changing news media on populations, weighed in on the developing story during an interview. “There’s footage of [Khashoggi] entering the consulate, and rumors of him being murdered is certainly atypical,” he said. “This guy is not alive and they can’t produce a body, so it’s pretty damning…It’s fair to call this barbaric.”

Speculation, scrutiny and conspiracy

Since Khashoggi’s disappearance, 15 Saudi officials have come under scrutiny of the Turkish police. One has been identified as Salah Mohammed al-Tubaigy, the head of forensic evidence at Saudi’s General Security department, as reported by The Independent. Four of the suspects have been linked to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, which runs counter to President Donald Trump’s comment that they “may be rogue killers.”

The 15 officials flew in the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance on two different flights—one at 3:13 a.m. and another at 5:15 p.m. on private charter planes frequently used by Riyadh officials—and returned the same day. Despite spending less than a day in Istanbul, the Saudi government has defended the officials as “falsely accused tourists.”

Riyadh initially denied the allegations as “baseless,” and made claims Jamal Khashoggi left the embassy on his own, without providing any evidence. King Salman himself denied any involvement while in talks with Trump. Meanwhile, a rumor spread that Saudi Arabia was preparing to admit to a botched killing due to an “interrogation gone wrong,” as reported by CNN.

According to exiled Prince Khaled bin Farhan al-Saud, luring dissidents to meetings only for them to disappear is a common strategy used by Saudi leaders. “Over 30 times the Saudi authorities have told me to meet them in the Saudi embassy, but I have refused every time,” al-Saud told The Independent, adding that it was a method used by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to silence adversaries.

Middle East Eye reported on five separate incidents involving strange disappearances going back to 1979 when Nassir al-Sa’id, the host of a radio program in opposition of the Saudi royal family, disappeared in Beirut. After calling for reforms to Saudi Arabia, Prince Sultan bin Turki was allegedly drugged and forced onto a plane after being lured to a meeting while in Geneva back in 2003.

Additionally, the minor Prince Saud bin Saif al Nasr, who was known for his criticism of the royal family through his Twitter account, disappeared in 2015 after allegedly being coaxed onto a plane returning to Saudi Arabia following his open support for a coup to overthrow King Salman.

United States and Turkish authorities have since released information to The Washington Post, confirming audio and video detailing the interrogation, torture and murder of Khashoggi. Video recordings show a Saudi assassination team seizing the journalist immediately upon entering the consulate. Officials told The Washington Post that he was then killed and dismembered. “The audio was particularly gruesome,” sources said.

“The voice recording from inside the embassy lays out what happened to Jamal after he entered,” said one official speaking anonymously due to classified intelligence. “You can hear his voice and the voices of men speaking Arabic. You can hear how he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered.”

A report initially released by pro-Erdogan newspaper Sabah stated the recordings were obtained by Khashoggi’s Apple Watch linked to his cell phone. However, the report has since been debunked, giving rise to speculation that the Turkish government bugged the Saudi Consulate.

David Katz, CEO of Global Security Group, commented on the likelihood of Turkish surveillance of the Saudi mission in Al Jazeera’s continuing coverage of the murder. “There is clearly tension between the Saudis and the Turkish government, so that suggests Turkey is going to be directing its very considerable intelligence apparatus at everything to do with the Saudi government in Turkey,” Katz said. “It’s very possible that they do in fact have audio and video recordings of things that have gone on inside the consulate, whether that was bugs planted or electronic intercepts. So you wouldn’t really need full forensics if you have evidence of that nature. And if the report in The Washington Post is correct, that’s apparently what they have.”

Who is Jamal Khashoggi?

Khashoggi was one of the most prominent voices of Saudi Arabia and the Arab world at large, both as a journalist and political commentator. He is mostly known for reporting on the events of Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait and the greater Middle East in the 1990s. On several occasions during the mid-1990s, he interviewed Osama bin Laden prior to becoming the infamous leader of al-Qaida. Khashoggi was once close to the inner-circle of the Saudi family, earning a reputation as a reformer for his critical questioning of Saudi regional and domestic policies.

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman focuses on dramatically changing Saudi economics and labor sectors. “MBS has received a lot of positive attention over the past few years in the United States, who see him as a pivot point in Saudi Arabian history,” Shaker said. “Westerners have portrayed him as some kind of reformer, able to steer Saudi Arabia into a more modern 21st century country.”

However, during that same time period, MBS lead the anti-corruption committee in a crackdown known internationally as the Arab purge. The crackdown saw to the arrests of princes, prominent business men and Muslim leaders and activists, some of whom were Khashoggi’s friends. As a result, Khashoggi defected from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Virginia where he began writing for The Washington Post.

“People in Saudi Arabia are largely dependent on the government for their livelihoods,” Shaker said while commenting on the relationship between people and the state. “The public is not necessarily in a place where they want to challenge Saudi human rights abuses.”

Khashoggi became a critical voice against Mohammad bin Salman when promises of reform only yielded arrests and repression. “We are expected to vigorously applaud social reforms and heap praise on the crown prince while avoiding any reference to the pioneering Saudis who dared to address these issues decades ago,” he said. “We are being asked to abandon any hope of political freedom, and to keep quiet about arrests and travel bans that impact not only the critics but also their families,”

Though Khashoggi said he was “ordered to shut up” by Saudi Arabia, he refused to be silent. Just one month after the Saudi threat, Khashoggi published a Washington Post article titled, “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable.”

In a comment, he said, “It was painful for me several years ago when several friends were arrested. I said nothing. I didn’t want to lose my job or my freedom. I worried about my family. I have made a different choice now. I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.”

International blowback

The extrajudicial killing has negatively impacted MBS and his reforms for Vision 2030. The Future Investment Initiative conference scheduled to run from Oct. 23–25 has seen numerous high-profile dropouts, the latest being CEO Dirk Hoke of aerospace giant Airbus Defence and Space and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was among the first to boycott the event, while founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways Richard Branson has halted talks on a $1 billion Saudi investment. “You can’t erase this as part of [MBS’] reputation,” Shaker said.

Senior Senator of South Carolina Lindsey Graham condemned MBS in a statement. “I know this, nothing happens in Saudi Arabia without MBS knowing it…I think he’s on a bad track,” he stated. “I can never do business with Saudi Arabia again until we get this behind us…That means I’m not going back to Saudi Arabia as long as this guy’s in charge.”

Despite international condemnation of Saudi Arabia and incriminating evidence that top Saudi officials were involved, Trump will still move forward with the $110 billion arms deal. “The Trump administration has actively downplayed this…and shows no interest in changing its relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Shaker said. Reluctant to impose sanctions in worry that Riyadh would retaliate by raising oil prices, Saudi Arabia—the kingdom with numerous human rights violations on record—is “guilty until proven innocent.”