Bad state actors are not uncommon, and the Middle East is rife with them. Two regional powers, long at ideological odds, are currently clashing over the case of a missing, and assumed murdered, man, Jamal Khashoggi.
Mr. Khashoggi is, or was, a dissident Saudi national living in the United States, a journalist who wrote columns for The Washington Post. He was once a Saudi royal insider but became a vocal critic of the regime and its leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In Turkey earlier this month, Mr. Khashoggi visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain papers allowing him to marry. His Turkish fiancée waited outside for him, and says he never emerged from the building.
The Saudi government contends that he did leave the premises, and that it is concerned about him. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has asserted that the Saudi dissident was murdered in the consulate.
Late last week, The Washington Post reported that the Turkish government told U.S. officials it had recordings, according to a Turkish newspaper, captured by a high-tech watch Mr. Khashoggi was wearing and transmitted to his smartphone, in the possession of his fiancée, providing “persuasive and gruesome evidence” that Mr. Khashoggi had in fact been executed in the Saudi consulate.
“You can hear his voice and the voices of men speaking Arabic,” a person with knowledge of the recording was quoted as saying. “You can hear how he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered.”
Saudi Arabia and Turkey represent two very different global ideologies. Mr. Erdoğan has long cast himself as a champion of the Arab Spring uprisings and of the political Islamists who had hoped to capitalize on that unrest. The Turkish leader is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, and to Qatar, another regional friend of that Islamist movement.
Prince Mohammed, the Saudi leader, champions the opposite camp, the anti-Islamist Arab establishment dictators who quashed the revolts. He, too, carries ugly baggage, like the torture and deaths of thousands of civilians in Yemen, where he sent troops and bombers to quash the rebellion there.
Their ideological differences aside, the Turkish and Saudi leaders have tried to maintain a détente between their nations, if something of a forced one. Each man faces considerable challenges.
Mr. Erdoğan is struggling to manage a teetering Turkish economy and an involvement in the Syrian civil war that the rebel forces he supported and trained have all but lost.
Prince Mohammed, even while portraying himself as an enlightened leader, has endured considerable criticism in the West not only for the devastating war in Yemen but for autocratic actions like temporarily detaining the prime minister of Lebanon and imprisoning hundreds of businessmen in a hotel.
And so, in light of all that considerable baggage, some observers have read into a newly announced joint investigative effort by Turkey and Saudi Arabia to explore Mr. Khashoggi’s fate a decision by both leaders to ratchet down the tension. If that is the case, it may well result in a face-saving retreat for both sides, perhaps with the Saudi prince acknowledging Mr. Khashoggi’s murder but pinning the blame on some rogue element in his government.
For the moment, though, the dissident’s disappearance has engendered a backlash against Saudi Arabia in the Western world.
Several scheduled participants in an investment conference that the prince is hosting this month in Riyadh said last week that they would not attend. British tycoon Richard Branson announced that he is pulling back from two tourism projects in Saudi Arabia and has suspended discussions with Riyadh about a $1 billion investment in the Briton’s space companies. There is also bipartisan support in Washington for imposing economic sanctions on the Saudis over the case.
For his part, President Trump, while stating his reluctance to back away from a $110 billion defense deal with Saudi Arabia, has said his administration was being “very tough” with Saudi Arabia with regard to the Khashoggi case.
The thought that a consulate, traditionally an island of peace and refuge, could be a murder scene is jarring. As is the thought of Mr. Erdoğan, a serial abuser of human rights and disrupter of international relations, in the role of defending an innocent citizen of another country. But it is, in the end, the Middle East.
The U.S. has for many decades faced complicated and fraught options in trying to maintain diplomatic and economic relationships with important but sometimes unsavory nations and leaders. But there are times when lines beg to be drawn in even the whitest, warmest sand.
It is imperative that a full and transparent investigation of Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance take place, and, if indeed he is no longer alive, that those responsible for his death not escape repercussions.