8 October 2018

A disappearance in Istanbul


Day or night, someone is likely to know where we are. Our friends and family, for one, or our colleagues. Someone will have an idea where to find us, if necessary.

More prosaically, our locations are tracked and our movements monitored by governments and technology companies. To these downturned eyes, our movements fall into and form discernible patterns.

Given that reality, the notion of disappearing entirely can seem tempting, even romantic.

But two disappearances in two weeks will have dissuaded anyone of that notion.

First, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi writer and Washington Post columnist who has been critical of the recent direction his country has taken, disappeared into Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate without a trace.

Then the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, disappeared while travelling from Lyon, where the organisation is based, to his native China.

Khashoggi was well known, in certain circles, as a reliable media feature. Friends have described him in excitable terms – some consider him an Islamist beyond the pale; others a sophistic charlatan; others a consistent controversialist of the sort some editors like to have on the payroll.

Despite his criticism of the present direction of the kingdom, Khashoggi is no lifelong dissenter.

In the past, after a period of disorder in which he held various media jobs, Khashoggi settled in as a commentator. He was perceived by some, at that time, as a de facto conduit for the Saudi government. “He was so close to the royal family and decision-makers, he was almost an unofficial spokesman for quite a while,” Hussein Ibish told the Washington Post. “And then he was estranged.”

Khashoggi continued working; becoming a columnist for the Washington Post. He appeared to have reached a point where he could live and work with some stability.

If Khashoggi was not famous before, he is now. And when someone doing Khashoggi’s job, and with his backstory, disappear, people start to speculate as to the reason for the disappearance.

The case of Meng Hongwei seems simple enough. A week after going missing, Meng has been declared in the possession of the Chinese authorities, who have accused him of corruption.

Khashoggi’s fate will likely be similarly clear. Though what may have happened to him seems worse than what China has done to Meng. Turkish investigators, assessing Khashoggi’s disappearance into the consulate, seem increasingly pessimistic.

Various media reports that these investigators are now advancing the idea that Khashoggi was not necessarily imprisoned or deported, as had been feared, but rather murdered by the Saudi state. It’s possible he was killed with brutal speed – dead in virtually no time, soon after he entered the consulate.

This is a chilling thought, and a sobering one. It makes the blood run cold.

Understandably, a good deal of anger has featured in the coverage Khashoggi’s disappearance has generated. Last week, the Washington Post ran white space where his column would have appeared. That tribute has given way to hotter heads.

Khashoggi’s story stands in stark contrast with the image the Saudi state is keen to promote. Their favoured image is one of a kingdom at increasing ease with modernity, led by reformers, eager to share the ambitions of the rest of the world. It’s a construction in aid of better public relations, something which created an appealing image. It is not an image leaves no room for murdered journalists.

There have long been reasons for the West to keep the Saudis sweet. The kingdom proved a friend of the United States largely because it has been a status quo power, and unwilling to move rashly or in aid of territorial revisionism. It was unlikely to annex a rival, or to try the sort of tactics in dealing with dissent that made Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi international pariahs.

If they start murdering or disappearing critics, the kingdom will lose that reputation, and undermine every positive move it has made towards the appearance of modernity. If Khashoggi has been killed or imprisoned, the Saudi state has behaved no better than its present geopolitical adversaries, Russia and Iran, both of which have murdered and disappeared journalists in ways people of good conscience revile.

If Khashoggi does not emerge unharmed from that consulate, Saudi Arabia loses any right to associate itself with the stability which allowed its friends to overlook its flaws.

James Snell is a British writer whose work has appeared in National Review, Prospect and History Today.