Disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi: Theories abound on whereabouts of outspoken government critic

The disappearance of Khashoggi has become pivotal to diplomatic relations in the region, and could even affect the US' equation with Mohammed Bin Salman.

The mystery of the disappearance of prominent Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi has gripped many parts of the world, revelation by contradictory revelation, and is expected to have a significant impact on the relations between two of the major players in the West Asian region — Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

On 2 October, Khashoggi (59) entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul with the purpose of collecting documents that would finalise his divorce from his wife in his home country. Neither of the governments has been able to provide satisfactory evidence about his whereabouts since. Khashoggi's Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, waited outside the consulate for almost 10 hours and returned the next day, but hasn't seen him since he entered.

The case has become pivotal to diplomatic relations in the region, and could even affect the US' equation with a reportedly favourite ally — Saudi Arabia's crown prince and de factor leader Mohammad bin Salman. Riyadh and Ankara have been trading blame and conspiracy theories about the disappearance of the journalist.

The Saudi consulate in Istanbul. AFP

The Saudi consulate in Istanbul. AFP

Khashoggi, who became a US citizen after he went into 'self-imposed' exile in 2017, feared fatal consequences of his strong critique of the oppressive royal regime. A columnist with The Washington Post, Khashoggi expressed feeling compelled to "raise his voice" against the rule. In a column, he had said, "It was painful for me several years ago when several friends were arrested. I said nothing. I didn’t want to lose my job or my freedom. I worried about my family....I have made a different choice now. I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better," he wrote.

Khashoggi has been a prominent figure in the Saudi Arabian media and also the adviser to its former head of intelligence. He left the country last year saying he feared retribution for his growing criticism of Saudi policy in the Yemen war and its crackdown on dissent.

On Sunday, two Turkish sources told Reuters that Turkish authorities believe Khashoggi was deliberately killed inside the consulate, a view echoed by one of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's advisers, Yasin Aktay, who is also a friend of the Saudi journalist.

According to reports, Turkish sources said that a 15-man Saudi hit squad had carried out the premeditated assassination. Turk-Arab Media Association director Turan Kislakci, a friend and colleague of Khashoggi’s, said that authorities had told him the Saudis had brutally tortured Khashoggi before dismembering his body and removing it from the building in pieces.

Turkish media reported that the 15 Saudi citizens were believed to have arrived in Istanbul on two separate planes on 2 October, and were present in the consulate at the same time that Khashoggi was. The 15 men, who were not identified officially, are believed to have left Turkey in a day or two.

However, Saudi Arabia dismissed claims of an assassination calling them "baseless". As of Wednesday (one week since the disappearance), the Saudi government stuck to its stand that Khashoggi had left the consulate, although they provided no concrete timeline or videographic evidence showing that the journalist left the consulate on 2 October.

The New York Times quoted an anonymous Saudi official as saying, "Khashoggi visited the consulate to request paperwork related to his marital status and exited shortly thereafter. Khashoggi is not in the consulate nor in Saudi custody."

According to the report, he had told a friend on 1 October that he was worried that he could he could be abducted and returned to Saudi Arabia if he entered the consulate. Kislakci said that diplomatic cars had been moving in and out of the consulate since Tuesday even though there was no news or sign of Khashoggi himself.

Amid reports that he has been murdered, Khashoggi's allies fear that he could have been abducted or "spirited away to Saudi Arabia".

Some media reports have said that US intelligence agencies might have received information about a threat to Khashoggi's life, but it is unclear if the warning was communicated to him.

Speaking to Reuters, Aktay said that according to Khashoggi, "Turkey was the safest country in the world for Saudi Arabians."

Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States said that "Jamal is a Saudi citizen who went missing after leaving the Consulate,” in a statement. He further added, "Saudi Arabia has sent a team of investigators to work with Turkish authorities and “chase every lead to uncover the truth behind his disappearance.”

Another twist in the mystery of Khashoggi's disappearance is an object that could provide important clues about his whereabouts, which is the black Apple watch he was wearing when he entered the consulate. The watch was connected to a mobile phone he left outside, Turkish officials said.

The mystery threatens to undermine the crown prince's drive to attract foreign investors and new high-tech business to a country that is too dependent on oil revenues.

Khashoggi had left Cengiz, his fiancee, with instructions to contact high officials in the Turkish government in case he didn't appear after entering the consulate. He left two phones with her, one of which, was connected to the Apple watch, Cengiz told Reuters.

According to the Reuters report, "A senior Turkish government official and a senior security official said the two inter-connected devices are at the heart of the investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance." “We have determined that it was on him when he walked into the consulate,” the security official said.

Investigators are trying to determine what information the watch transmitted. “Intelligence services, the prosecutor’s office and a technology team are working on this. Turkey does not have the watch so we are trying to do it through connected devices,” he said, according to the report.

With inputs from agencies

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