Saudi journalist′s disappearance complicates Saudi-Turkish ties | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 04.10.2018
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Middle East

Saudi journalist's disappearance complicates Saudi-Turkish ties

Earlier this week, Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi went missing after going to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. The case could strain ties between Riyadh and Ankara.

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Turkey is growing tense after the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who went missing after going to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday.

On Thursday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned the Saudi ambassador in Turkey to discuss the whereabouts of the missing commentator, who had often made critical remarks towards the Saudi government and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi ambassador told Turkey that his country's authorities have "no information" on where the journalist could be, but that they are cooperating with Turkish officials to "uncover the circumstances" of Khashoggi's disappearance. 

Khashoggi went to the consulate in order to obtain a marriage license. He has not been seen since then. Saudi Arabia claims that he left the consulate and then disappeared, while Turkey claims that he may still be in the embassy and is possibly being detained.

Saudis increasingly silencing criticism

One possibility is that Saudi authorities in Istanbul have kidnapped Khashoggi. "The Saudi authorities have surprised us time and again in recent months with their efforts to silence even moderate criticism abroad and in the Kingdom," Guido Steinberg, a Middle East expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs who knows Khashoggi, told DW. "Kidnapping a Saudi national in a consulate would be another surprise, of course, but it should not have been to Khashoggi. What I find hard to understand is why he entered a Saudi consulate in the first place."

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Getty Images/AFP/M. Al-Shaikh)

Jamal Khashoggi was often critical of the Saudi Arabia's restrictions on freedom of speech, along with the kingdom's role in the war in Yemen

Reporters without Borders (RSF) called the incident "extremely worrying." "We call on both the Saudi and Turkish authorities to shed all possible light on this matter and to do everything to ensure that this journalist reappears – free – as soon as possible," the organization said in a statement.

The incident could further deteriorate Saudi Arabia's already fraught relationship with Turkey. Turkey supported Qatar in its dispute with Saudi Arabia last year and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Riyadh considers to be a terrorist organization. Due to this, Steinberg believes that Saudi Arabia would not worry about diplomatic repercussions from Turkey if Khashoggi were indeed kidnapped. "Relations between Ankara and Riyadh have been strained for a while already," he said. "The Saudi government probably does not care too much about possible repercussions of a possible kidnapping." 

Abdullah al-Bander, a commentator for Sky News Arabia in Abu Dhabi, refuted the accusations that Saudi Arabian authorities possibly kidnapped Khashoggi, saying they were "false." He also added that "Turkey kidnaps Turkish dissidents in Kosovo and Ukraine, and arrests 70 people in a week. Yet the Turks say it is the legitimate right of Turkey to do so." He believes that anyone in Turkey or the Turkish government who alleges Saudi Arabia is kidnapping its dissidents abroad should look at their own government first.      

Read more: Free press conflict overshadows Merkel's meeting with Erdogan

Steinberg agreed with the notion that Turkey persecutes its dissident nationals abroad. "The Turkish government can hardly complain, because it is known to persecute its opposition abroad and it has kidnapped Turkish nationals in Balkan countries recently."

Incident could 'send shock waves' through exile community

Turkey currently hosts exiles from all over the Arab world, such as Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood who oppose military rule under current Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi. "If Khashoggi was indeed kidnapped in the Saudi consulate, that would send shockwaves through the emigrant community in the country," Steinberg said.

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Modernization, without criticism

The possible abduction of a Saudi exile in Turkey could also reflect poorly on the Turkish government and its ability to protect exiles there from being kidnapped from foreign powers. For this reason, the Turkish authorities are taking the matter very seriously. "If Turkey allowed abductions by foreign governments to take place on its soil, its own internal security would rapidly deteriorate," David Hearst, the Editor-in-Chief of Middle East Eye and friend of Khashoggi wrote in an op-ed.    

Khashoggi had been living in Washington D.C. in self-imposed exile. When asked if the US administration under Trump would put pressure on the Saudis to give information on Khashoggi, Steinberg was skeptical. "The Trump administration has followed a consistent pro-Saudi line since its inception," he said. "I find it hard to imagine that it would change this policy because of a person like Khashoggi."

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