On October 2nd, Saudi Arabia-born journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to obtain documentation for his upcoming marriage to his Turkish fiancee. Khashoggi was never seen exiting the compound and has not been heard from since, sparking intense speculation that his disappearance was caused by the Saudi government, which he had been highly critical of in his writings for the Washington Post and other outlets.
Around the same time as his entrance to the Saudi building, multiple official vehicles arrived at the complex and later left, leading many to circumstantially believe Khashoggi to have been transported in the cars. The vehicles departed for the residence of the Saudi consulate general where they disappear out of sight; however, it’s speculated that Khashoggi, dead or alive, was then moved by plane and brought to Saudi Arabia. Two suspicious chartered flights on that day from Saudi Arabia to Turkey fueled such allegations—one of which flights allegedly transported a 15-man “hit squad” to Turkey in order to murder Khashoggi—having fit the timeline of the disappearance.
Turkish officials also say they have obtained audio and video recordings showing Khashoggi being beaten to death and dismembered inside the consulate, though they would not release this evidence.
Complicating the matter is the release from Turkey of American pastor Andrew Brunson, a high-profile political prisoner of two years in Ankara. While dismissed by Trump as coincidental timing, Brunson’s release on Friday appears to have served as a political olive branch from Turkey to the US, likely with an expectation of support in pressuring the Saudi government to reveal any part it may have played in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
For the murder to have been orchestrated by the Saudi leadership continues a similar and disturbing trend of zero tolerance for outspoken critics of the Saudi monarchy. Saudi Arabia ranks 169th out of 180 countries ranked in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index in 2018, and is considered one of the most bellicose environments for serious reporters as well as citizen journalists to cover. Per RSF, between 25 and 30 journalists are currently detained in Saudi Arabia, many of whom disappeared from their families under similar conditions to Khashoggi.
The recent change of leadership in Saudi Arabia propelling Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to power has proven feeble in altering the sentiment towards the press, in spite of the significant steps taken towards seeding out corruption from the government, legalizing certain rights of women, and other areas of vast positive change under the new leadership.
Previous United States intelligence reports purport that Bin Salman initially planned to lure Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia on his own free will, only to have him be detained, a plan that never came to fruition but indicates the prior intention of the Saudis to target Khashoggi.
The debacle leaves the United States in a unique predicament, whereby the relationship cultivated with Saudi Arabia under the Trump administration largely rests on the resolution of this matter, as well as a rare chance to make inroads into a typically hostile Turkish regime. Speaking on the disappearance, Trump stated that it’s a “terrible thing,” without designating blame on Saudi Arabia. This is largely the result of Trump’s and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s formulated economic ties with Saudi Arabia and a diplomatic relationship between Trump and Bin Salman, leaving the possibility that the Saudis may resolve this matter and emerge scot-free.
So the moral and diplomatic dilemma presented is whether the United States will definitively admonish the actions of Saudi Arabia with the substantial cache of evidence against them—and in doing so, endanger diplomatic ties with an economic ally? Or does Trump, not known for his friendship with the media, remain impartial so as not to create tensions with the Saudis, but in doing so legitimize the heavy censorship and brutal enforcement present in Saudi Arabia.
And the former option prevails as more beneficial to the United States and to democracy in a theological Saudi Arabia and to effectively ‘return the favor’ to Turkey. By way of denouncing Bin Salman’s actions taken against the press, Trump would force the Saudi leadership to consider whether an independent press would be acceptable in this age of Saudi reforms and historic changes. Under the tragic circumstances, Trump holds an especial position of power and an ability to advocate for a more democratic Saudi Arabia, an opportunity that cannot be missed.