Local and foreign press members are waiting in front of the Consulate General of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul

Missing journalist changes the narrative on Saudi Arabia

More than two weeks have passed since news broke of the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

More than two weeks have passed since news broke of the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

The gruesome details that were reported about the fate of Khashoggi shocked many people around the world. Each day the international community learned of more disturbing and dreadful information about what happened to him.

Details included the arrival of a death squad on private jets, their short stay at hotels, the few hours they spent at the consulate, a black van, a forensic expert on the team, the rapid departure of the squad the same day despite their three day hotel reservation, the now well-known guard of Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS) on the team, the denials and later silence from Saudi authorities, the Saudi consul general’s unexplained departure from Istanbul and reports of an audio recording.

On first impression, this looks like the script of a violent movie, similar to the Coen Brothers’ Fargo or one of those documentaries about serial killers. The way that the crime was committed in cold-blooded fashion made everybody a little bit insecure and frightened. As these sentences are being written there are more details emerging about the incident. But even before the investigation ends, we figure there will be some consequences to this action.

Firstly, many observers of regional politics and journalists have started to name someone from the higher echelons of the royal family as the perpetrator of the incident.

The positions of the squad members sent to Istanbul makes it hard to organize such an act against such a high-profile journalist in another country and within the Saudi Consulate. It makes it highly unlikely that the action was not cleared from top officials in Riyadh.

Then as reported by The New York Times the details about the team show that some of the members were close security personnel of the crown prince. The prince, just days after the disappearance of Khashoggi, in an interview with Bloomberg stated that Khashoggi left the consulate minutes or an hour after his entry, which turned out to be inaccurate.

Today reports on the incident are raising questions on the relation between MBS and the killing of the journalist. This spree of news and reports will definitely put a dent on the charm offensive that MBS has organized since his appointment as the crown prince in Saudi Arabia. The political career of a prince that was expected to be in power for many years will largely depend on the outcome of this investigation.

Secondly, this issue, since the very beginning, has seriously impacted U.S.-Saudi relations. Although the U.S. administration is doing its utmost during this process by avoiding any direct mention of the incident and the royal family, there is heightened pressure from Congress, the media and the business sector about rethinking the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

President Trump first raised the $110 billion arm sales regarding the incident and said that the U.S. cannot sanction Saudi Arabia, because they can buy the weapons from other countries.

Later, after his conversation with Saudi Arabia’s king, President Trump stated that it may have been a rogue group behind the incident. A day after this incident, this time after a conversation with MBS, President Trump said MBS told him that there will be an investigation into the incident. Finally yesterday, Trump this time stated that it certainly looks like Khashoggi was killed and that there will be severe consequences.

However, the tone Congress took was not in line with President Trump’s approach. Even the most Saudi-friendly congressmen and senators raised their voices about the incident. Senator Lindsey Graham stated that MBS should not be crown prince anymore and he will not work with the Saudis until the end of the investigation. In the meantime some congressmen introduced a bill that would suspend the sales of arms to Saudi Arabia until Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a statement that exonerated the Saudi government from the incident.

In the meantime U.S. media outlets and U.S. companies started to withdraw from the Saudi investment conference “Davos in the Desert.” The last U.S. media outlet that remained in the program – Fox News – withdrew yesterday, the same day that Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin also announced that he will not be attending.

The other public diplomacy programs of Saudi Arabia in the U.S. have also been impacted following the Khashoggi affair. The Metropolitan Museum of Arts and the Brooklyn Museum announced that they will not be accepting Saudi funds for their upcoming programs. Many now describe the situation in bilateral relations as the lowest point in four years, after the oil embargo.

Reports indicate that Jared Kushner is trying to persuade the president and the administration to stand behind MBS in this crisis, however, it is not clear how far this support can continue given the increasing degree of pressure. With the upcoming midterm elections this may even become a domestic politics issue between the Democrats and Republicans.

Finally, it should be important to note the fact that Saudi officials can think, plan and implement such an incident in a diplomatic compound in Turkey, demonstrates that international norms and principles are once again being challenged, this time from a different dimension.

It has been an important topic of late, with a number of books and articles written on the end of the liberal international system – and the action of Saudi officials presents yet another example of how the liberal world order can be challenged and rules and norms can be freely violated by countries. The incident also demonstrates potential outcomes of this new, chaotic situation.

[Daily Sabah, 19 October 2018]

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