The Killing of Khashoggi: Why the Consulate Was Chosen as the Scene of the Crime

By Jeremy Salt


[Update: The publication of this article was delayed because of a Gmail block on the American Herald Tribune website, as part of what is a general assault on dissident media and blog sites.  The article was sent to the closed Gmail address by mistake. Since its writing, more details have spilled out through Turkish police sources and Middle East Eye, an internet news site which largely reflects the views of the Qatari government. There seems little doubt of their accuracy.  Khashoggi was attacked as soon as he entered the consulate, and tortured before being drugged, killed and dismembered while he was still alive, according to police sources.  The Saudi consul-general was told to leave the room while this was going on. It was suggested to others that they listen to music to drown out Khashoggi’s screams or, presumably, the sound of his body being cut up. This disgusting spectacle apparently continued at the consul-general’s residence, where the body parts are said to have been buried. The consul-general left Istanbul ahead of the residence being searched.  As to why the consulate was chosen as the killing ground, the answer probably is that this assassination was not state-sanctioned and did not involve Saudi intelligence.  Accordingly, it was not carried out by professional killers in a back street, but by a hastily assembled gang of amateurs sent to the consulate as soon as it was known Khashoggi would be there.  He was trapped the moment he walked through the door. The result was a completely bungled but dreadful killing.]

The apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul raises many questions. One so far ignored is diplomatic immunity. Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (1963), immunity from prosecution of representatives of the ‘sending’ state and the inviolability of consular premises are both guaranteed but with important qualifications.

Under the heading of ‘consular functions,’ article 5 (1) obliges the sending state to respect the rights of its nationals, individuals and bodies corporate “within the limits of international law.”

Article 5 (5) requires the sending state to help and assist its nationals.  Article 41 (1) states that consular officers shall not be subject to arrest or trial “except in the case of a grave crime and pursuant to a decision by the competent judicial authority.”

Article 43 (1) states that consular officers are not amenable to the jurisdiction of the receiving state “in respect of acts performed in the exercise of consular functions.” Article 55 (1) requires consula

The crime that has been committed, whether kidnapping or murder, violates every one of these provisions. Perhaps its architects thought the convention would protect the consulate whatever happened inside it but this is not the case.  The failure of a ‘sending’ state to abide by the conditions of diplomatic or consular immunity opens the way for a ‘receiving’ state to take action consistent with its own laws.

With evidence indicating that Khashoggi was kidnapped and possibly if not probably murdered inside the consulate, Turkey sought permission from the Saudi government to search the building.

r officers to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving state.

Initially this was granted.  Turkish officials entered the consulate but a day later, after the publication of the faces of the 15 men sent from Saudi Arabia to Istanbul, with the apparent mission of killing Khashoggi, permission was revoked.

Saudi Arabia then sent a delegation to Turkey, a ‘working group’ as it has been described, to cooperate with the Turkish prosecutors in investigating the crime.

Three days after the arrival of the Saudi team, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mesut Cavusoglu, said with evident irritation that Turkey still had not seen the cooperation it was expecting.  The statement seemed to hint that Turkey was prepared to go further if ‘cooperation’ was not forthcoming.  Legally, even if it does not take these steps, Turkey may already have had advice that it would be within its rights to close off both the consulate and the consul-general’s residence and search them.

At this stage the evidence pointing to murder is circumstantial but compelling. Khashoggi went into the consulate and did not come out. Turkish police sources say they have audio and visual evidence of his murder as it was being committed and that this information has already been shared with Turkey’s ‘western’ allies. No-one outside government circles, however, including the media, has seen it.

Whether the consulate was bugged or whether the evidence police sources say they have  was transmitted from Khashoggi’s Apple watch to his mobile phone is surely only a secondary issue, if the material can be shown to be authentic.  It would not be remarkable if the consulate was being bugged. Governments spy on each other all the time but never admit it and if Turkey did bug the consulate it is hardly going to say so.

If Khashoggi has been murdered, the crime is not just heinous but an act of monumental folly for which Saudi Arabia will pay dearly unless the state distances itself from the individual or individuals responsible.

The evidence collected so far points right at Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Given his domination of the Saudi political scene, it is improbable that such an operation could have been carried out without his knowledge and consent, apart from which the squad of alleged assassins are said to have included some of his personal guards.

Of course, it is not for the media to convict him and ‘alleged’, and ‘said to be’ are no substitute for the hard, incontrovertible evidence. For the time being innocence has to be presumed but on the basis of what is known so far, Salman is the prime suspect and the 15 men sent to Istanbul his implements of destruction.

Given his past headstrong behavior, it is possible that no-one else in the Saudi government knew what he was up to, if he really was behind this crime.  it is probable that senior figures right up to the king himself would have been aghast if they did know. They are not likely to have sanctioned such an outrageous act. They might be old and ineffectual but at least they are not young and stupid.

In defending itself against evidence it cannot refute, this may be the line the Saudi government will eventually have to take to get out of this.  At the moment it is full of bluster, and threatening to punish any government which dares to impose sanctions on it with an even more punitive response.   It may think it can bluff, brazen or threaten its way out of this crisis, but against the rising tide of outrage, in Europe as well as the US, this does not seem possible.

Equally, Donald Trump may think he can continue selling arms to the Saudis but the issue is now a weapon aimed directly at the president only a few weeks before the midterm congressional elections.  All members but one of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have written to Trump raising the question of sanctions and requesting him to invoke the Magnitsky Global Human Rights and Accountability Act (2016). He has 120 days to send his reply to Congress.

Khashoggi also has (or unfortunately had) powerful friends in Washington, including at theWashington Post, who are not likely to let this go. No-one can continue business as usual with a government that has allowed the kidnapping or murder of one of its own nationals in its own consulate.

The economic repercussions are already spreading far and wide.  The Saudi stock market has suffered its biggest plunge in value since 2014. Businessmen, industrial corporations and the media are rapidly canceling plans to attend the ‘Davos in the Desert’ economic development conference in Riyadh later this month. As for Saudi Arabia’s small army of lobbyists in Washington, they might as well go home or go fishing.

Saudi Arabia cannot stonewall endlessly. Eventually, it will have to choose.  Either it can watch the collapse of its diplomatic relations around the world and live with the political and economic consequences or it can come clean. If it knows Salman is guilty it can hold him responsible and punish him on its own soil and in its own way, along with the team sent to Istanbul and the consular staff who facilitated the crime.

Holding Salman to account would seem to be the best option. It certainly would have the support of his numerous enemies in the kingdom. They include the high-level princes, whom he arrested, humiliated and stripped of their assets. If Salman does go, the flow-on effect might include an end tohis war on Yemen.

Khashoggi was once an uncritical supporter of the Saudi regime and its causes. He worked for its media as a journalist and served as a media advisor to the Saudi ambassador in London before the parting of the ways in 2006, over a column he had written for the Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat.  He was still supportive of the government but no longer uncritical. Dropped as a columnist, he went into voluntary exile, taking up residence in the US last year and writing for the Washington Post.

In his articles, Khashoggi often singled out the crown prince as the root cause of Saudi Arabia’s recent problems.  As many inside the kingdom or out would agree with him, this was hardly radical, but having his boy wonder image repeatedly being tarnished in a newspaper read by his powerful friends in Washington must have been annoying, irritating and even infuriating, perhaps to the point where Salman just wanted to swat this wasp that refused to stop stinging him.

Conservative but liberal in his general worldview, Khashoggi was regarded as being somewhat sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, which used to have a second home in Saudi Arabia until the government decided many years ago that its brand of political Islam was too dangerous.  It will have been noted that his Turkish girlfriend, Hatice Cengiz, waiting outside the consulate for 11 hours, wears the hijab.

Assuming again that Khashoggi was killed, one of the many unknowns is why the consulate was chosen as the scene of the crime when an assassin could surely have been found to take care of him in a back street in such a way that the killer would never be found and the motive would remain the subject of speculation forever.

Instead, 15 men were flown in to kill Khashoggi in the middle of the day in a busy city. There were no false names and papers or wigs or a quick change of appearance in the airport toilets.  They gave their true names, ages and place of temporary residence. Their faces were picked up on cameras.

Outside the consulate, cameras showed cars arriving and leaving. Number plates were visible. Khashoggi was shown on camera entering the consulate but never recorded leaving. He did not come out and that at least cannot be denied.  Had the individual or individual who planned this operation wanted to attract attention, short of having Khashoggi killed on the footpath, they could hardly have organized it any better.

The relationship between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar is a crucial element In this situation. Partly the differences between Turkey and Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other come down to the Muslim Brotherhood which Saudi Arabia abhors but which the rulers of Qatar and Turkey both support.

Iran also fits into the picture. Qatar does not share Saudi Arabia’s unrelenting hostility to the government in Tehran, preferring a pragmatic position based on trade and a working relationship despite differences across the Shia-Sunni ideological divide. Refusing to toe the Saudi line on a number of issues, including relations with Iran and the operations of the Al Jazeera television network, Qatar was put under land, air and sea blockade by Saudi Arabia in June, 2017.

The UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and a string of small countries far from the Middle East but dependent on Saudi money joined in, only for the blockade to be circumvented thanks to food aid from Iran and an implied threat of resistance through the strengthening of the Turkish military presence in Doha.

In 2011 Saudi Arabia and Qatar both declared a proxy war on the Syrian government, but in rallying individual Arab government support, as well as channelling support through manoeuvring at the Arab League, Qatar stepped out in front, seeming to displace Saudi Arabia as the dominant leader of the conservative Arab world bloc. This seems to have laid the groundwork for resentment and the differences that were to follow, ending in the severance of relations and the blockade.

As a mini-state (only 300,000 of Qatar’s estimated 2.6 million population are native Qataris and thus citizens) it was automatically expected in Riyadh that Qatar would continue to toe the Saudi line. When it wouldn’t, it had to be taught a lesson and reduced to its proper station in life, which was that of a vassal.

This hasn’t worked. Qatar survived the blockade quite comfortably and is flourishing while Saudi Arabia is enmeshed in a war on Yemen it can’t win and is embroiled in an international scandal that is shaking the foundations of its government.

Between the two, Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, holds a strong hand.  How he will play it remains to be seen.

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