It has all the hallmarks of a Cold War-era spy novel. A dissident enters a diplomatic mission in an exotic location and then disappears, seemingly without trace.
Only this time the suspect in the dissident’s disappearance is not a communist Eastern bloc country, but Saudi Arabia, one of Washington’s staunchest allies.
Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known Saudi commentator on his own country’s internal affairs and, for the past year, a resident of the US and contributor to The Washington Post, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at 1.30pm last Tuesday and has not been seen nor heard of since. There have been claims a 15-strong security detachment arrived at Ataturk Airport prior to Khashoggi’s disappearance and that he may have been secreted out of the country by them in a convoy of embassy vehicles; there are even claims he was murdered inside the consulate. The Saudis deny these claims.
Yet the lack of CCTV footage recording Khashoggi’s departure and the consulate’s claim its CCTV can’t record makes Riyadh’s claim that he left the consulate voluntarily impossible to verify. Officially at least, Turkey has been playing a careful game. Relations are already strained between Ankara and Riyadh over the former’s support for Qatar in the dispute it has with the Saudis and Emiratis. And Turkey is facing economic challenges and can ill-afford to upset the bilateral relationship so that it scares away private Saudi investment.
Khashoggi’s disappearance, though, casts a long shadow over Riyadh and its approach to dissent. Dozens of critics and activists, including women’s rights activists, have been detained, often accused of being in contact with unnamed foreign powers as a way of delegitimising their actions. In August Canada expressed concern regarding the arrest of civil society activists and called for the release of Samar Badawi, whose sister-in-law and family had been granted asylum in Canada in 2013. Riyadh called the criticism “an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom”, expelled the Canadian ambassador and ceased all future trade and investment with Ottawa. The alleged disappearance of Khashoggi therefore fits into a broader pattern of silencing dissent.
The social reforms undertaken by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman have garnered much positive press, reflecting the influence of Saudi-funded Washington PR companies and a genuine interest in the West of seeing some actual social reforms being undertaken, rather than just being promised. But what social reforms have been undertaken have been highly controlled by the crown prince — there is no doubt that while he has championed reforms they are only in the social sphere and the pace is controlled by him. His detention of an undetermined number of businessmen and senior officials at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh on charges of corruption was also generally well received within the kingdom.
But while Mohammed has shown a relatively sure hand when he has been able to control events within the kingdom, his record in dealing with external actors has been poor. As defence minister he was the architect of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, which has limped along since 2015. In June last year Riyadh picked a very public fight with Qatar, which has refused to accede to Riyadh’s demands. And in perhaps the most bizarre instance of foreign interference to date, last November Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was detained during a visit to Saudi Arabia and made to resign on national television.
In an increasingly globalised world, it is impossible to ring fence foreign policy issues from affecting the domestic environment. And while Riyadh’s ham-fisted approach in some foreign policy areas may be of purely academic interest to many, the reality is Saudi Arabia’s promised mini-privatisation of the state-owned Aramco, and visions surrounding projects for long-term investment, require transparency and certainty before Western investors and technocrats are likely to commit. Poor decision-making on the part of Riyadh in the very public foreign policy arena does little to engender confidence in investors.
Saudi Arabia’s activist foreign policy has to some extent been enabled by Washington because Riyadh sees in Donald Trump someone less concerned than his White House predecessor Barack Obama in human rights, and more likely to share the Arab bloc’s view of regional security through an exclusively anti-Iran lens. But with increasing concern over the activities of Riyadh in the region and calls to review Washington’s support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen, if Saudi complicity in Khashoggi’s disappearance is proven then expect the pressure to increase on the White House to review its closeness with Riyadh.
Disappearing a critic within the country is one thing, doing that overseas is another. But when that critic is a writer for one of the top two newspapers in the US, expect the issue to stay a live one in the corridors of Washington and other Western capitals until he reappears safe and sound. The Trump administration may yet find its closeness with Riyadh to be an increasingly heavy political weight around its neck.