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Will Khashoggi’s disappearance rock Turkish-Saudi relations?

How Turkish President Erdogan discloses the official findings of the investigation into Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance will be crucial in determining the future of Turkish-Saudi ties.
Pictures of Saudi journalist Khashoggi are placed on security barriers during a protest outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 8, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer - RC1FD8B03460

The more time passes, the more mysterious the disappearance of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi becomes.

On Oct. 2 at 1:12 p.m., Khashoggi and his Turkish fiance, Hatice Cengiz, went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Turkish sources have offered conflicting details on what happened next. Al-Monitor spoke with senior security bureaucrats in Ankara who requested to remain anonymous. 

Here is what we know and what we would like to know.

The first question: Why did Khashoggi need to go to the consulate for his upcoming marriage? The answer: He had to obtain an official divorce document before the marriage could take place. Khashoggi has been living in self-exile in the United States since last year, which leads to the next question: Why didn't he request this document from Saudi representatives in the United States? Independent sources in Turkey said: “He had applied to the US for the document but was told, ‘Your fiance is Turkish and you need to go to Turkey.’ He had visited the consulate on Sept. 28 and was told to come back on Oct. 2.”

Security cameras at the consulate show Khashoggi’s entrance Oct. 2, with his fiance waiting at the door. Khashoggi handed her his cellphone and told her to call Yasin Aktay, a senior adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, if he did not return within a few hours. Aktay appeared on Turkish television Oct. 7 and said that Khashoggi thought Turkey was a safe place to go to the Saudi Consulate. Aktay said that Khashoggi thought he would be safe at the consulate in Istanbul since Saudi Arabia would not risk its relations with Turkey.

In the half-hour interview, Aktay also said he had received information that Khashoggi was murdered. He said 15 Saudis had arrived on two planes at the time Khashoggi was at the consulate, hinting that somehow these men were involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Khashoggi’s fiance called Aktay at 4:40 p.m. when the journalist did not come out of the consulate. The Turkish authorities immediately launched an investigation. Aktay stated that “whatever happened” to Khashoggi happened Oct. 2 between 1:12 and 4:40 p.m. Aktay later penned op-eds on the affair for pro-government Yeni Safak daily, stating that it was a “matter of international honor for Turkey” to find out the truth. “What happened to Khashoggi in Turkey, to put it bluntly, is not only an operation against him, but also an operation against Turkey,” he wrote Oct. 6.

Yet officials in Ankara were cautious when speaking about Turkish-Saudi relations to Al-Monitor, pointing to Erdogan’s statement on Oct. 7. Erdogan told reporters that Khashoggi was an old acquaintance and that he was closely following the case. He said Turkish security forces were investigating the incident, including examining airport entries and exits. “We are awaiting the conclusions and announcements of the prosecution,” Erdogan said, striking an optimistic tone. “God willing, we will not face an unpleasant situation.”

Until Erdogan confirms, “Khashoggi will not be dead for sure,” one official commented. He then added, “But we know he is.”

Until Erdogan confirms, “Khashoggi will not be dead for sure,” one official commented. He then added, “But we know he is.”

Turan Kislakci, the head of the Turkish-Arab Media Association, told the press Oct. 4 that Khashoggi's family and friends are worried Khashoggi might have been kidnapped and taken to Saudi Arabia. Then, on Oct. 7, he said he had confirmed with security sources that Khashoggi was murdered. He then revealed gruesome details about the alleged murder and said, “We are preparing for funeral prayers."

Saudi authorities vehemently denied the allegations and claimed that Khashoggi had left the consulate within 20 minutes of his arrival. Yet they were unable to provide visual proof of his departure. A Saudi delegation arrived in Istanbul to aid the investigation Oct 7.

Events took a bizarre turn Oct. 8, when Aktay struck a much more optimistic tone in another live television interview. He said he hopes Khashoggi is still alive and that his prior claims had come from the news media, not his own sources. Kislakci tweeted that he would consider the whole deal a “theater play” as long as Khashoggi is alive.

The harsh allegations and subsequent retractions have generated serious questions. First and foremost, how will this affect Turkish-Saudi relations in the near future? Ankara bureaucrats believe that, based on Erdogan’s cautious tone, this will rock the boat but not sink it. “Relations with Saudi Arabia — due to changes in the situation in Syria, the Turkish friendship with Qatar, the Saudi alliance with the United States on the issue of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, and suspicions in Turkey about financial support pouring in from Riyadh to the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] — have already been strained beyond our wish. This makes it much worse,” one official said.

Although Aktay was surprised that any atrocity could befall Saudis in Istanbul at the hands of their own government, several others in Ankara confirmed they have always warned Saudi dissidents to be vigilant. One official said, “We did not envision a murder, frankly. Many people here in Ankara find it [murder] hard to comprehend.”

Another issue that Aktay and others are having difficulties grasping is why Khashoggi was targeted. Although he opted for self-exile and had written critically about the new Saudi regime, Khashoggi was a part of the Saudi political elite for years. There was no investigation against him in Saudi Arabia. The alleged murder, if proven, signals that the new regime is willing to set a precedent with Khashoggi: that disloyalty among Saudi political elites will not be allowed, even outside of Saudi Arabia.

What can Turkey do now? One option that is being discussed in Ankara is officially severing relations with Saudi Arabia — if or when the investigation confirms murder. Aktay has called for accountability. A source close to the presidential palace told Al-Monitor, “This is a matter that has hit home. Khashoggi was respected in Islamist circles in Turkey. Yet there are several serious considerations before cutting off relations, and the investigation must be completed.”

Another official sarcastically asked, “Is Trump administration going to cut off relations with Saudi due to this and other human rights violations? Let us know when they do.”

Turkey reacted in a savvy way, deploying unofficial voices rather than elected officials to announce the alleged murder. Simultaneously, Turkey was rather blunt in its gradual unofficial leaks from the ongoing investigation. Emotional statements have generated further ambiguity.

Yet flip-flopping between cruel murder scenarios and wishes of well-being is a direct blow to Turkish credibility. It seems the Turkish bureaucrat is right: Until Erdogan confirms, "Khashoggi will not be dead for sure."

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