Caught red-handed, Saudi Arabia's best choice is to come clean

THE EDITORIAL BOARD
ISTANBUL
Published

Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and dissident who had been living in self-imposed exile, entered his native country's consulate in Istanbul last week and never left. Khashoggi was reportedly killed by an assassination squad, which included a forensic expert, that arrived in two private jets shortly before their victim's appointment at the consulate and left Turkey later the same day. There is absolutely no reason to doubt the veracity of these reports.

The disappearance of Khashoggi is a very serious criminal act and a huge problem for Saudi Arabia. It represents a violation of international law and an unprecedented break with diplomatic protocol. Saudi officials, who were complicit in the assassination, must be brought to justice. The United States and others must support Turkey's efforts to uncover the truth.

If Khashoggi was the victim of a state-sanctioned assassination, as Turkish authorities and everyone else seem to believe, Saudi Arabia's political leadership must start thinking about their global image. Over the past year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has spent a lot of time and money to portray himself as a moderate reformist. The murder of Khashoggi, by contrast, has earned him a reputation akin to Moammar Gadhafi, who had Imam Musa Sadr and his two companions killed during an official visit in 1978. Even the Saudi crown prince's most passionate supporters in the West have bowed to public pressure and turned against Riyadh. Going forward, it will take a lot more money to hire surrogates in the West.

At the same time, the Khashoggi affair raises serious questions about the competence of Saudi Arabia's security operatives. The fact that Turkey could crack the case in hours and the United States had reportedly intercepted Saudi communications about the planned attack against Khashoggi in advance highlighted the narrow limits of Riyadh's operational capabilities. Murdering an unarmed man does not a regional power make.

To be clear, this isn't about Turkey's bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia. In the past, the Saudis carried out similar covert operations in France, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United Kingdom, among other places, to abduct or intimidate dissidents. Nor is it possible to dismiss Khashoggi's premeditated murder as an internal dispute between the government of Saudi Arabia and a perceived enemy of the House of Saud.

Among the reported claims about Khashoggi's murder, one is that his body was chopped up to be transported outside the consulate more easily. The most astounding thing about the whole affair is that there is no one coming forward to dismiss this claim. After what they have done over the past few years across the Middle East and especially in Qatar, many people think that Saudi officials are capable of anything.

The lesson of the past week should be clear: Riyadh must not make the mistake of assuming that it can fight its battles on Turkish soil. Efforts to export domestic tensions to Turkey are a serious violation of our country's sovereignty and Turkish authorities should use every action to ensure those guilty are punished.

For the record, Turkey isn't an enemy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Yet, it cannot afford to turn a blind eye to Riyadh's recklessness, which manifested itself in Yemen and during the Gulf crisis, and its blatant abuse of our goodwill. Whether or not the Saudis are frustrated, Turkish authorities won't let go. Without further delay, Riyadh must start cooperating with Turkish prosecutors and law enforcement to shed light on what exactly happened. Riyadh must come to terms with the fact that getting away with murder is not an option. The only choice available to the kingdom's leadership is between coming clean and extended public shaming.

The Khashoggi affair is a reminder that Saudi Arabia must correct its course and dial down its reckless aggression in the Middle East. Provided that the Saudi leadership won't just change their ways, it is the international community's responsibility to get to the bottom of what happened. Khashoggi is not planning his wedding today because the world looked the other way when Mohammed bin Salman took hostage some of his country's wealthiest people and released them only when they agreed to make cash payments. As a matter of fact, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi suggests that the Saudi leadership has just taken its violent campaign against dissidents to the next level. If the international community does not take necessary steps to hold the perpetrators accountable today, such acts could be the new norm soon.

Needless to say, the United States bears greater responsibility than any other country. The Trump administration's weak response to the targeted killing of Khashoggi is alarming to say the least. Although U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were forced to address the issue in public, it seems that their personal and official interests in staying on Riyadh's good side have outweighed the gravity of the situation. Yet refusing to go after the murderers of a U.S. resident and Washington Post contributor isn't really an option. If Washington fails to take action today, its own reputation will be on the line.

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