Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran journalist who has been critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has now joined the growing list of Saudi dissidents who have mysteriously disappeared in recent years.
Khashoggi has been unaccounted for since last Tuesday when he entered the Saudi diplomatic mission in Istanbul to receive a certificate about his finished marriage in Saudi Arabia.
Turkish investigators are working to piece together what happened outside the consulate. What happened inside remains a mystery.
Turkish authorities believe he died there at the hands of a “murder squad” flown from Riyadh to kill him and dispose of his body. His body was smuggled out, they added, perhaps in a diplomatic car.
An adviser to Turkey’s president on Tuesday vowed that the country will prosecute all those involved in the suspected kidnapping or murder of the dissident Saudi journalist, even if it involves the Saudi consul himself.
Saudi Arabia’s repression reaches Istanbul as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was already on bad terms with Saudi Arabia, partly over his support for Qatar in its dispute with its Persian Gulf neighbors.
In the last few years, at least three other Saudi nationals, all outspoken critics of the Saudi leadership and all living in Europe, have been kidnapped. Friends and allies say they were thrown into prison in Saudi Arabia – or worse.
“Despite the denials, the oil-rich Kingdom is an absolute monarchy and has a track record of refusing to tolerate dissent by its citizens – both domestically and abroad,” according to a report by the Middle East Eye.
The Committee to Protect Journalists Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney said in a recent statement that the group was “alarmed” by the reports that Khashoggi may have been killed inside the consulate.
“The Saudi authorities must immediately give a full and credible accounting of what happened to Khashoggi inside its diplomatic mission,” Mahoney said. “The country has stepped up its repression of critical journalists in the past year at home. We hope this has not now spread abroad.”
It is no mystery why Saudi Arabia might have wanted to silence Khashoggi, a critic of the leader-in-waiting, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The journalist wrote frequently in Arabic, penned a regular column for The Washington Post, and kept close ties with countless diplomats and journalists. For over a year, he used that platform to criticize growing repression in Saudi Arabia and urge an end to the war in Yemen.
Whatever his fate, Khashoggi’s disappearance has sent a chilling message to critics of the crown prince.
In addition, the crown prince detained more than 100 royals and ministers in a purported corruption sweep last year. Dozens of activists still languish in jail; some may face the death penalty.
Astonishingly, the Saudis detained a sitting prime minister, Saad Hariri of Lebanon, for two weeks in November.
Even spiriting Khashoggi out of Turkey would have had precedent. In March, a women’s-rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, was detained in Abu Dhabi and whisked back to Saudi Arabia, where she remains in jail.
But murdering a critic abroad would be a chilling escalation, a tactic previously used by former dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, who used their embassies to terrorize exiles.
In October, a report by a Canadian academic lab found that the Saudi government used Israeli-made Pegasus spyware to snoop on the phone of a prominent Saudi dissident living in Canada.
In the United States, where Khashoggi was a resident, administration of President Donald Trump may be less bothered. He is close to the Saudis and not exactly a champion of human rights or press freedom.
A few members of Congress have however expressed outrage. “If this is true… it should represent a fundamental break in our relationship,” says Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator.
Other reactions will matter more. If the crown prince abducted or killed a critic in Istanbul, business leaders may wish to reconsider attending a major investment conference in Riyadh later this month.
A final question is how the Saudis themselves will react. Bin Salman’s economic reforms have met predictable headwinds. His foreign policies range from missteps, like the blockade of Qatar, to catastrophes, like the war in Yemen.
The rights group Prisoners of Conscience, which is an independent non-governmental organization advocating human rights in Saudi Arabia, announced in a post on its official Twitter page last month that Saudi authorities were reportedly keeping more than 2,500 anti-regime activists behind bars as part of a widening crackdown led by bin Salman against Muslim preachers.