Tuesday 22 January 2019

Explainer: Why is the disappearance of an investigative journalist threatening international relations?

Footage: Journalist Jamal Khashoggi walking into the Saudi Consulate on Tuesday, October 2
Footage: Journalist Jamal Khashoggi walking into the Saudi Consulate on Tuesday, October 2

Micheal O'Scannail

Jamal Khashoggi went missing on October 2 after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.

The journalist was a strong critic of the Saudi government and royal family and has been reported murdered after he never returned to his fiancée waiting for him outside.

The Saudi officials in the consulate claim that he left through the back door but have neglected to provide proof and Turkish officials now claim to have concrete proof that he was killed and dismembered in the consulate. 

While the story has been heavily reported on, widely circulated rumours and a lack of proof from either side has muddied the water. Here's a report of all of the crucial information in this ongoing global narrative.

A protest at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia about the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
A protest at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia about the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Who is Jamal Khashoggi?

Jamal Khashoggi is a well-known Saudi Arabian journalist and author, who served as editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel and editor for Saudi newspaper Al Watan.

Mr Khashoggi is best known for his critical reporting of the Saudi Arabian government and in particular their Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, and king, Salman of Saudi Arabia. He also opposed the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen.

Fearing arrest and even fearing for his life, the journalist fled his native country to the United States and lived there for over a year in self-imposed exile. In that time, the 59-year-old was a regular columnist in the Washington Post. In an article for the newspaper titled “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable,” he criticised the Crown Prince, bin Salman.

“I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice,” he wrote.

“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.”

Why is it so heavily suspected that he was killed in the embassy?

Having already expressed his worry about what would happen if the Saudi government got their hands on him, Mr Khashoggi went to the nation’s consulate in Istanbul to secure paperwork verifying his divorce from him previous wife, so that he could re-marry to his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.

On the day that he was last seen, October 2, he asked his fiancée to accompany him to the consulate and wait outside while he tried to obtain the required documents. The last time he was seen alive by anyone outside of those in the consulate was when he entered the premises at around 1pm on that day.

Ms Cengiz told the Washington Post that she waited for her future husband outside for several hours. When the consulate closed and there was still no sign of him she called security guards who informed her that there was no one inside.

Mr Khashoggi had prepped his fiancée on what to do, in what he must have suspected as a possible situation and she followed his orders, calling the Turkish police, and an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The journalist has not been seen alive since.

What reason would the Saudi government have to want Mr Khashoggi dead?

While Mr Khashoggi has gained notoriety for his criticism of the Saudi government and ruling powers, he wasn’t always an adversary of his nation’s rulers. Once an adviser to the former director of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, Prince Turki bin Faisal, at the beginning of the millennium Mr Khashoggi had a good relationship with the Saudi royal family.

In recent years however, the journalist’s angle on the royal family has changed. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has feigned the role of a tolerant leader by reducing restrictions of women drivers and allowing cinemas to open for the first time, was at the helms of a war with Yemen that was the cause of tens of thousands of deaths. 

Mr Khashoggi has been heavily critical of the 33-year-old and has tried to expose him for the corrupt leader that he believes him to be.

In his regular columns for the Washington Post he has criticised both the Saudi prince and king and also their government. He condemned Saudi Arabia's dispute with Lebanon as well as the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar, their diplomatic dispute with Canada and crackdown on dissent and media in the country.

Mr Khashoggi is an advocate for women’s rights in his country as says that they should receive equal treatment to men. While he praised the Crown Prince’s reduction of women’s driving restrictions, he strongly condemned his arrest of several women’s rights activists.

What are the claims about the alleged murder of Mr Khashoggi?

Earlier in the week it was reported that Turkish officials have “concrete” evidence that Mr Khashoggi was killed in the consulate.

While the officials have been vague about their evidence, their reports state that a squad of 15 Saudi nationals were flown in to conduct the killing and flew out later that day. They claim to know the names and positions of all of the 15 intelligence officers and on Wednesday, Turkish media leaked CCTV footage of what they say was the men arriving in Istanbul and driving into the consulate before leaving Turkey via the same airport.

The Turkish Government also told US officials that they have video and audio footage that proves the journalist was killed and his body was dismembered in the consulate but, they have not yet offered the proof.

Latest reports from the Sabah newspaper, a pro-government Turkish news outlet, backs up these claims stating that the journalist recorded the events on the Apple Watch he was wearing and the footage is in Turkish hands.

What has his disappearance done for Saudi Arabia’s global relations?

The media hype around Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance has served to fulfil the journalist’s ambitions to expose the Crown Prince and thwart his attempts to convey the Saudi government as progressive. It has also severely strained the nation’s relationship with several countries, especially Turkey and the US.

Disagreements between the nations around the blockade of Qatar, one of Turkey’s allies and Turkey’s stance on political Islam mean that the relationship is already fragile and this serves as a potential further threat to that relationship.

Turkey’s president Mr Erdoğan spoke out, calling the disappearance “very, very upsetting,” and calling for the Saudi consulate to provide proof that the journalist left their premises through the back door as they have claimed.

Why is Donald Trump getting involved?

The US currently has good relations with Saudi Arabia. Donald Trump went on his first official visit as a president there in 2017 and has since welcomed the Crown Prince to the Whitehouse. The Pentagon has even assisted them in their war in Yemen, providing intelligence, trading in arms and refuelling planes.

Mr Trump has claimed that the US are working with both Turkey and Saudi Arabia in an effort to track down the journalist’s whereabouts. While he claims that the relationship with Saudi Arabia is still “excellent” on a Thursday interview on ‘Fox and Friends’, he has since claimed that if the allegations are found true, there will be ramifications for their relations.

In an interview with CBS News, Mr Trump called the potential murder “terrible and disgusting" and said that there will be repercussions if proven true.

"As of this moment, they deny it vehemently,” he said.

"We're going to get to the bottom of it and (if the claims are true) there will be severe punishment."

If Turkish officials can provide evidence that Mr Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate as they claim, it would trigger the Global Magnitsky Act which would allow the US to punish them for abusing the journalist’s human rights.

In this case Mr Trump would have up to 120 days to decide whether to take action, however, he told journalists on Thursday that he may not be willing to give up the weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, saying that there are other ways to punish them.

“This took place in Turkey and to the best of our knowledge Khashoggi is not a United States citizen, he’s a permanent resident,” Mr Trump told media at the Whitehouse.

“We don’t like it, even a little bit. But as to whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country, knowing they (Saudi Arabia) have four or five alternatives, two very good alternatives, that would not be acceptable to me.”

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