What will the Khashoggi investigation reveal?

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The Khashoggi case is a litmus test for the Saudi leadership to prove whether it sticks to respecting international legal principles or behaves as a rogue state

Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor, entered the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and never came out. Approximately 13 days have passed since his disappearance and there is no indication that the Saudi dissident is still alive. Turkish authorities had immediately concluded that Khashoggi had been murdered. Although Saudi Arabia has issued blanket denials, it failed to provide evidence of Khashoggi leaving their consulate.

The Khashoggi affair has already exceeded the limits of Turkey's bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia. It is now subject to international scrutiny. From the United Kingdom to the European Union, a large number of parties have already gotten involved. As a matter of fact, Khashoggi's disappearance became a top item on Washington's agenda.

To some degree, this is the outcome of the policy that Turkey followed since the news of Khashoggi's disappearance broke out. Ankara refrained from turning the incident into a crisis with Saudi Arabia, mounting pressure on Riyadh or starting a diplomatic spat that could further destabilize the region. Instead, the Turks adopted a carefully crafted messaging strategy designed to force Riyadh into an admission of guilt.

First, security forces gathered evidence to establish that Khashoggi had been killed at the Saudi Consulate. Then Turkish authorities started revealing this to international media outlets and foreign governments.

It was Turkey's communication strategy that transformed the Khashoggi assassination into an international issue and prevented it from being reduced to a bilateral matter between Ankara and Riyadh. Right now, the Saudis are working very hard to clear their name, which the murder has severely stained. As U.S. senators call for a suspension of arms sales to Riyadh, business giants have decided to freeze or cancel pending investments in Saudi Arabia. In other words, the kingdom – especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS) – experiences a serious crisis of legitimacy. Although U.S. President Donald Trump reaffirmed his commitment to sell military equipment to the Saudis, who, he claimed, would otherwise buy weapons from Russia or China, he understands that his administration is compelled to take action against Saudi Arabia.

In an effort to de-escalate its crisis of legitimacy, Riyadh ended up cooperating with the Turkish investigation into Khashoggi's murder. Having pledged to allow the Turkish police to search their consulate in Istanbul, the Saudis backtracked on their promise soon enough. A few days later, a Saudi delegation flew to Ankara and requested the formation of a joint working group. Hoping to uncover the truth, Turkey agreed. Yet Turkish authorities reminded Riyadh that the formal investigation in Istanbul would continue uninterrupted.

The million-dollar question is whether anything will come out of the joint investigation? There is little reason to be optimistic. To be clear, Turkish police don't need Saudi Arabia's assistance. They have been investigating the incident and found compelling evidence in the process. Some of the information at their disposal has already been published in international media outlets. Arguably the most damning piece of evidence, an audio recording of the murder, was described to the Washington Post by U.S. and Turkish officials last week.

In this sense, Riyadh desperately needs the joint investigation to address its legitimacy crisis. But the underlying problem won't go away even if the Saudis brought themselves to acknowledge their involvement in the Khashoggi murder, blamed it on rogue actors and expressed regret. After all, there is no way of knowing that MBS, one of whose most recent violations of international law was to detain Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh for an extended period of time, won't take destabilizing steps in the future.

Going forward, Saudi Arabia must learn to respect international law and the Islamic world's expectations. It must stop making concessions regarding the legal status of Jerusalem, repair its relations with Qatar, work more closely with Turkey and refrain from sponsoring coup plotters in the Middle East. This is how they can help the region and themselves.

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