The suspected murder of a Saudi journalist in Turkey again highlights Saudi Arabia’s suppression of dissident views. However, the latest incident might be one taken too far by the Middle-eastern monarchy, writes Demola Ojo
Last week, the gory details of what might have happened to Jamal Khashoggi who disappeared more than two weeks ago were revealed by Turkish authorities to a shocked world.
Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian journalist, author, and a former general manager and editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel. He also served as editor for the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al Watan, turning it into a platform for Saudi Arabian progressives.
He left Saudi Arabia September last year and went into self-imposed exile in the US. Khashoggi said that the Saudi Arabian government had banned him from Twitter and that he feared for his life.
He later wrote newspaper articles critical of the Saudi government, especially of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, and his controversial tactics to consolidate power, which has involved arresting powerful business executives and members of the royal family. Khashoggi also opposed the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen.
On October 2, a few days to his 60th birthday, Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents necessary to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.
Cengiz reportedly waited for Khashoggi outside the consulate for roughly 11 hours, but said he never came out. Saudi officials initially claimed Khashoggi left the consulate freely, a lie they told for two weeks.
“Mr. Khashoggi visited the consulate to request paperwork related to his marital status and exited shortly thereafter,” an unnamed Saudi official told The New York Times.
The Saudi Arabian government continued to vehemently deny allegations the reporter was murdered. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Bloomberg News shortly after Khashoggi’s disappearance that Turkish authorities were welcome to search the consulate, adding, “We have nothing to hide.”
However, after overwhelming pressure from the international community, the Saudis two days ago finally admitted that Khashoggi was killed at the consulate in a fist fight.
But according to details coming from audio recordings described by a senior Turkish official last week, Saudi agents, who had flown into Istanbul a few hours before by private jet, were waiting when Khashoggi walked into the consulate. Within minutes, he was dead.
He was beheaded, dismembered and his fingers severed. Within two hours, the killers were gone.
The government of Turkey let out these and other leaks about the recording in an escalation of pressure on Saudi Arabia for answers about Khashoggi, who wrote for The Washington Post.
Khashoggi’s death is disturbing because it seemed to have been at the behest of the Saudi crown prince, even though the Saudi narrative is that a rogue team perpetrated the act. A few senior officials have been sacked.
According to the Turkish officials’ account, the 15 Saudi agents, some with ties to Crown Prince Mohammed, deliberately murdered Khashoggi.
After the journalist was shown into the office of the Saudi consul, Mohammad al-Otaibi, the agents seized Khashoggi almost immediately and began to beat and torture him, eventually cutting off his fingers.
The consul was present and objected, the official said. “Do this outside. You will put me in trouble,” Mr. Otaibi told the agents, according to the Turkish official and a report in the Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak. Both cited audio recordings said to have been obtained by Turkish intelligence.
“If you want to live when you come back to Arabia, shut up,” one of the agents replied, according to both the official and the newspaper.
According to the New York Times, a top Saudi doctor of forensics had been brought along for the dissection and disposal of the body — an addition to the team that Turkish officials have called evidence of premeditation. And as the agents cut off Khashoggi’s head and dismembered his body, the doctor had some advice, according to the senior Turkish official.
Listen to music, he told them, as he donned headphones himself. That was what he did to ease the tension when doing such work, the doctor explained.
Although several Turkish officials have described the audio recordings or other evidence related to Khashoggi’s disappearance in the consulate, all have declined to disclose how the material was obtained.
Some recordings or other evidence may have come from intercepted communications or audio surveillance that the Turkish government is unwilling to acknowledge for fear of compromising intelligence sources or revealing violations of international law.
Whichever way the Saudis decide to handle a situation that has blown up in their faces, it only highlights a regime that has always trampled on the rights of citizens and also intolerant of contrary views both home and abroad.
This is a country that until June this year, was the only one in the world where women could not drive and families had to hire private chauffeurs for female relatives.
However, the lifting of the ban came amid an intensified crackdown on activists who campaigned for the right to drive. Women’s rights activists have been detained and could face trial in a counter-terrorism court and long prison sentences for their activism.
Meanwhile in November last year, more than 200 businessmen, princes and government officials were detained and imprisoned at the luxury Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh in what the Saudi government said was an anti-corruption drive.
Some of the powerful detainees may have suffered abuse at the hands of their captors as they were coerced into agreements to hand over billions of dollars to the Saudi government in return for their freedom.
According to the New York Times, a Saudi general may have been tortured to death and several wealthy businessmen allegedly abused. Major General Ali al-Qahtani, an aide to a senior Saudi prince seen as a potential rival to Prince Mohammed, died in government custody in mid-December.
Sources said the general’s “neck was twisted unnaturally as though it had been broken” and that his body had burn marks which appeared to be the result of electric shocks.
Saudi Arabia’s reputation has taken further dents over its conduct in Yemen. The past months have been replete with horror stories from the Saudi-led invasion there: an airstrike claiming the lives of at least 20 members of a wedding party, or 40 children killed when a Saudi bomb hit their school bus.
The conflict at its heart has been driven by a local fight between the former president and his vice-president who ousted him following the Arab spring. But Saudi Arabia’s interference has helped escalate it to the detriment of the civilian population there.
Saudi Arabia was also at the forefront of the coalition that attempted to arm twist its neighbour, Qatar which – even though has faults of its own – is rapidly modernising and has set an example for freedom of the press by Arab standards.
The historic land, maritime, and air blockade were measures designed to strong-arm Doha to comply with a list of 13 demands, which included shutting down Al Jazeera and other media outlets said to be funded by Doha.
And last month, a senior Saudi official confirmed the Saudis desire to move forward with plans to turn Qatar into an island.
The Salwa island project will change the geography of the region by digging a canal along its 61 kilometer border with Qatar. Saudi guards took control of the Salwa border crossing in April, cutting off Qatar’s only land link, and further isolating the peninsula.
Also, in what has been described as “a 9/11 threat” Saudi Arabia’s state media, in August, tweeted a graphic appearing to show an Air Canada airliner heading toward the Toronto skyline in a way that recalled the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US.
Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador after an official account called for the release of detained women’s rights activists in the kingdom.
Fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and Osama bin Laden, the attacks’ mastermind, was a Saudi citizen who has family there.
The graphic warned of “Sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong!” and included the text: “As the Arabic saying goes: ‘He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him.’”
Saudi Arabia has been getting away with a lot due to its economic power and its ties to the US. The Saudi economy is the largest in the Arab world. It has the world’s second-largest proven petroleum reserves and the country is the largest exporter of petroleum.
In his initial reaction to Khashoggi’s disappearance, US President Donald Trump made mention of a $110 billion arms deal he signed with Saudi Arabia in Riyadh last year and its importance to his country’s economy.
But things may be changing at last. Washington has hardened its stance with Trump saying in answer to questions about consequences for Saudi Arabia if it is found to be involved in the killing: “Well it’ll have to be severe, I mean it’s bad, bad stuff.”
Last Thursday, Saudi Arabia felt the first repercussions from the US over Khashoggi’s apparent death, with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin pulling out of a planned appearance at a Saudi investment conference this week. An administration official said no US officials would attend the conference in his stead.
Liam Fox, the UK trade secretary, and the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, and his Dutch counterpart, Wopke Hoekstra, also pulled out of the conference.
The CEOs of three top banks had already announced their withdrawal. International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde has also cancelled her attendance.
Bipartisan groups of US lawmakers have begun to back international demands for an independent investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance and are calling on Trump, who has touted the crown prince’s “total denial” of any involvement, to reveal his personal financial ties to Saudi Arabia.
With the US, Saudi Arabia’s biggest ally taking the lead, the middle-eastern monarchy might finally start answering for decades of suppression and intolerance to dissident views, starting with further explanations and clarifications over Khashoggi’s death.