On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, for what most would consider a fairly routine task: acquiring papers to allow him to marry his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. Hours later, long after the consulate had closed, Cengiz was still waiting outside with the cell phone Khashoggi had handed her before entering.
Over the next few hours and days, Cengiz heard no word from Khashoggi. Turkish police began an investigation, and with every passing moment, it became clear that Khashoggi was not coming out—he had been murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate on the day he had entered to retrieve his papers.
Who was Jamal Khashoggi?
Khashoggi was a prominent Saudi Arabian journalist. Before leaving Saudi Arabia to work in Istanbul, Washington DC, and London in 2017, he was close to various high ranking officials in the Saudi Arabian government. They considered him an unofficial advisor and a reliable public supporter of government policies. In 2017, however, citing fear of retribution for his criticisms of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, Khashoggi entered “voluntary exile” and continued his journalistic work abroad. He became an increasingly vocal critic of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and his father, King Salman. Despite his fears of retaliation and the condemnation of Saudi nationals, he continued to bring to light the impediments to free speech in the Arab world.
Cengiz’s concern over her fiancé’s absence was well-founded. Twenty-four hours after his disappearance, friends and family had still received no word from Khashoggi. Information from the Turkish and Saudi governments gave conflicting accounts: the Turkish government stated that Khashoggi was still inside the consulate and the Saudi government insisted that he had left freely. Turkish officials opened an investigation.
Over the next two weeks, a dizzying series of facts, allegations, and denials unfurled. On October 6, various anonymous sources close to the Turkish investigation informed the press that Saudi agents had been waiting to confront Khashoggi in the consulate on the day of the disappearance. Investigators reportedly believed that Khashoggi had been killed and dismembered inside the consulate in a matter of hours.
Shortly after these anonymous reports, various news outlets released photos of a fifteen-member Saudi team believed to be responsible for the murder. The team had arrived in Istanbul shortly before Khashoggi’s appointment to retrieve his papers, and they left on the afternoon of October 2, a few hours after the murder is believed to have occured. Each of the fifteen members was identified—most occupied high-level positions within the Saudi government, and one was an autopsy expert, something that investigators said further substantiated the idea that Khashoggi was dismembered in the consulate immediately after the murder. At this point, the Saudi government maintained that Khashoggi had left the consulate freely and that they had no information regarding his whereabouts.
Within a week of Khashoggi’s disappearance, however, reports of a video showing his torture and murder further cast the Saudi government’s denials into doubt. Turkish investigators were also said to have obtained an audio recording that captured the Saudi team’s conversation with the consul before the attack. However, no video or audio was released to the public.
On October 15, the Saudi government made the first modification to its story: that Mr. Khashoggi had “mistakenly” been killed during an interrogation conducted in the consulate by a “friend” of the crown prince and Saudi intelligence official. Turkish investigators continued to search for information and for Khashoggi’s body in the Saudi consulate and consul’s house. The Saudi government further modified its account of the events, saying that Khashoggi had been accidentally killed in a brawl that occurred when he tried to leave the Saudi consulate. Video footage showing what appeared to be a person of Khashoggi’s stature wearing clothes identical to the ones Khashoggi had worn into the consulate was released on various news outlets, cementing claims that the murder was premeditated and approved by the Saudi government at a high level.
An Ensuing International Fallout
Though the details of the murder were and still are unfolding, decisions as small as the public release of investigation updates provided clues on the tangled international relations at play. Turkish officials’ reluctance to release video or audio footage—even as credible reports of the existence of both emerged—likely speaks to a desire to conceal exactly how much surveillance takes place in the consulates in Istanbul. Similarly, though Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stood in direct opposition to Saudi Arabian policies in the past, he initially refrained from criticizing Saudi Arabia directly in relation to Khashoggi’s murder and even approved a Saudi request to investigate the matter alongside the existing Turkish investigation in a joint committee.
At the same time, Erdogan may be keen to diminish Saudi Arabia’s power in more indirect ways. Saudi influence in the region has solidified as Mohammed bin Salman has taken more progressive stances on social issues and has allied himself with US President Trump. In contrast, Erdogan has been on the outs with both the United States and many European countries as he has consolidated power and quashed dissent in what analysts have viewed as major setbacks to Turkey’s democracy. Khashoggi’s death not only provides him with moral and rhetorical offense with which to undermine Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy and reliability as a government but also the chance to seize and exploit a relative shift in Turkey’s standing in the region.
For instance, Erdogan has been consistent in his efforts to ensure that Khashoggi’s death remains in the public eye and that the Saudis are made to answer for their actions. In a much-anticipated speech, Erdogan challenged the Saudi version of events surrounding the murder, saying, “Who are these people receiving orders from? Why has the consulate been opened to investigation days after the murder rather than immediately after? Why have so many inconsistent statements been made while the murder was so clear?” Some analysts believe that Erdogan may be using the audio and video allegedly obtained by Turkish investigators as bargaining chips in an attempt to extort money from Saudi Arabia to mitigate the poor economic conditions Erdogan himself created in Turkey. Erdogan has denied this, saying that he rejected an offer from a Saudi envoy as a “political bribe.”
If not to extract Saudi money, Erdogan’s comments certainly serve another goal: to make the issue of Khashoggi’s murder a global one and to weaken the relationship of the Saudis to one of its strongest allies, the United States. Trump has been typically erratic in his public statements on the matter, going from saying that “it sounded like . . . the Crown Prince had no knowledge” of the attack to calling it “one of the worst [cover-ups] in the history of cover-ups.”
How will the United States respond?
Possible US responses run a similarly wide gamut. At the most severe end, the United States could pull out of the arms deal made with Saudi Arabia in 2017. Unsurprisingly, Trump does not support this option, arguing that it would be like harmful to the United States despite the fact that many experts have clarified that his statements valuing the deal at $110 billion are optimistic at best.
In a more moderate and much more likely scenario, the United States could pursue diplomatic and human rights-driven measures. Already, the State Department has revoked existing visas or the ability to obtain a visa for all of the suspects implicated in the murder. Fifty-five members of Congress recently wrote to the director of national intelligence to ask whether the United States was aware of a plot against Khashoggi before it happened. Similarly, twenty-two senators triggered an invocation of the Global Magnitsky Act, which requires that Trump determine within 120 days whether an extrajudicial killing committed by a foreign person occurred.
The question remains what effect, if any, these American investigations will produce. In the case that they find sanctionable guilt under the Global Magnitsky Act, Congress will likely seek to implement punitive financial measures on those who have assets within the United States. However, this is unlikely to significantly impact the Saudis involved in the murder, whose power is more closely sourced from their positions in the royal hierarchy than from their financial standings.
More impactful will be the ways in which information revealed by either the internal investigation into the United States’s prior knowledge of the murder or the Global Magnitsky Act investigation change upcoming votes on the war in Yemen. A resolution in the House that would direct Trump to remove all US forces from the conflict in Yemen has recently been introduced, and senators have spoken out in favor of limiting arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Lawmakers have long been frustrated with the United States’ role in the war in Yemen: the United States supplies arms to Saudi Arabia, which heads the coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 and has been controversial for its involvement in what the United Nations has said may be “war crimes.” The murder of Khashoggi has likely provided the impetus for Congress to act.
In any case, Erdogan’s strong rhetoric serves one final function that must not be underestimated: to keep the world’s eyes on Saudi Arabia. The longer Khashoggi’s murder holds international attention, the worse Saudi Arabia fares, and the effects are already starting to show. Soon after details of the murder began to leak, a number of investors cancelled their planned participation in the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The value of Saudi currency also fell in the weeks following the murder, and it appears as though confidence in investments in the region has been shaken not only by the details of the case itself but also by the spectacle of the Saudi government’s contradictory and varying series of statements on the matter.
The Likelihood of a Long-Term Impact
In the long run, Saudi Arabia will certainly remain an important ally of the United States in the Middle East. Trump is highly unlikely to cut the ties with Saudi royalty that he and his senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have been cultivating over the past two years. However, it seems likely that US support for the war in Yemen will change if not cease entirely. Furthermore, Trump will likely encounter increased resistance to measures that increase the scope of the Saudi arms deal.
For Erdogan, the death of Khashoggi was indeed an opportunity. However, while public outrage and international measures have certainly weakened Saudi Arabia’s standing, these developments are not enough to propel Turkey to the regional or international status Erdogan is aiming for. A Turkish resurgence will depend more on the president’s economic policies and ability to garner support for his religious leadership goals than on a Saudi slip-up, albeit a public and damaging one. And Saudi Arabia, for its part, will likely stick to its more low-level methods of dealing with dissenters as it tries to repair its international image and regain the confidence that accompanied many of Mohammed bin Salman’s progressive and promising reforms.
Clare Ulmer is a Contributing Writer for The Gate.