CAIRO — The death of Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul has opened a Pandora’s box of perspectives. Criticism is raining down on Saudi Arabia from much of the world, while many Arab states support the kingdom, and Egypt tries to walk a tightrope of neutrality.
On Oct. 24, the Saudi public prosecutor said it appears the journalist's death was "premeditated." He said this position — which contradicted Saudi Arabia's earlier, shifting statements, but surprised few observers — is based on information from Turkey. Also on Oct. 24, The Washington Post reported that CIA Director Gina Haspel had traveled to Turkey and heard a recording of Khashoggi being tortured and dismembered inside the Saudi Consulate there. The newspaper cited "people familiar with her [Haspel's] meetings."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had on Oct. 23 told members of his Justice and Development Party that Khashoggi’s death was planned and that Turkey has strong evidence he was killed “in a savage way.” Erdogan called on Saudi Arabia to reveal the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body and the person who ordered his killing.
The kingdom had insisted for 18 days that he was not murdered, and that he had left the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul alive Oct. 2. On Oct. 20, Saudi Arabia officially stated Khashoggi had died in a “brawl” inside the consulate. Then came the news on Oct. 24 that the Saudi public prosecutor agreed with Turkey that the journalist's death appeared premeditated.
After several attempts to defend the kingdom since Khashoggi’s disappearance, US President Donald Trump finally said he doubted the Saudi narrative. On Oct. 22, he told USA Today that he was now convinced it was “a conspiracy gone wrong” and that he was not satisfied with what he had heard from Saudi Arabia.
Since Khashoggi's disappearance, many countries have commented on the incident. Some, like Germany, France and the United Kingdom, have expressed deep concerns and called for a “credible investigation,” while others have clearly voiced support for Saudi Arabia against what they say is a political motivated campaign of distortions.
In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs, tweeted Oct. 11, “The fierce campaign against Riyadh is expected … [and] the repercussions of the political targeting of the kingdom will be severe for those who fuel it. [The] Saudis' success is the first choice for the region and its citizens.”
Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa tweeted Oct. 11 that his country backs the kingdom regardless of what the investigation finally determines: “The aim is to support Saudi Arabia rather than seek the truth. … We support Saudi Arabia with our souls.”
The Egyptian authorities were reticent and didn't immediately comment on the affair. Egyptian media outlets close to the regime, however, voiced support for the Saudis. Pro-regime Youm7 newspaper reported Oct. 8 that the Khashoggi case was a new Qatari plot against Saudi Arabia and that Khashoggi was a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated journalist. Egypt and Saudi Arabia believe Turkey and Qatar support terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood.
On Oct. 14, the official Saudi Press Agency cited an "official source" who completely rejected any threats of sanctions or other repercussions, and thanked the kingdom’s supporters for standing up to "the campaign of false allegations."
It was then that Egypt broke its silence and issued a cautious statement Oct. 14 through its Foreign Ministry. On its official Facebook page, the ministry stressed “the importance of revealing the truth of the matter through a transparent investigation, while emphasizing the gravity of pre-empting investigations and [making] groundless accusations.”
Egypt’s presidential spokesman Bassam Radi told RT channel Oct. 16, “The Khashoggi affair is an important international case and has serious dimensions,” without mentioning any details. He also called for a transparent investigation.
It seems Egypt is trying to please the kingdom for fear of harming relations between them.
Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “Egypt tried to maintain neutrality in this affair and refused to issue a statement backing the kingdom [immediately] — unlike the UAE and Bahrain — to protect its international reputation. It did not want to appear as a 'subordinate' to the kingdom. Egypt kept mum, but employed its media to support Saudi Arabia before issuing a belated statement that called for waiting for the investigation outcome. With that, Egypt wanted to avoid taking sides.”
Nafaa added, “I think Egypt will neither support nor condemn the kingdom, if it’s proven to be implicated. Egypt in the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser [president from 1956 to 1970] is different from [President] Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt. Times have changed and Egypt’s economy is weak, and its political situation is tough. It cannot voice its opinions like before.”
Haitham al-Hariri, a parliament member of the 25-30 bloc, told Al-Monitor, “Saudi Arabia has several pressure cards that Egypt would crack under — like the Saudi investments in Egypt that are estimated in the billions. Besides, many Egyptians work in the kingdom, which tops the list of countries [in] Egyptian employment. If Saudi Arabia were to remove its investments or sack Egyptian employees, Egypt would suffer severe economic losses.”
In February, Ahmad al-Wakil, chairman of the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce, estimated that Saudi investments in Egypt account for $27 billion and that the kingdom ranks first among Arab countries for investments in Egypt. Wakil noted that Saudi investments in Egypt are reflected in 2,900 projects across various production and service sectors.
Around 2.9 million Egyptians live in the kingdom — 46% of the total number of Egyptians in Arab countries, according to a 2017 census conducted by Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.
Hariri added, “We can't overlook Saudi support for Egypt in the oil sector. Following a diplomatic crisis between the two countries over Syria, the Saudi Aramco company stopped exporting oil to Egypt to pressure it to shift stances.”
He was referring to state-owned Aramco's action in October 2016, when it suspended oil sales to Egypt and didn't resume shipments until March 2017. The rebuff came after Egypt voted in favor of a Russian draft resolution before the UN Security Council regarding the Syrian crisis.