The disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi after entering the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday afternoon has made international headlines. Although a Saudi official denied the reports about his disappearance and insisted that he had left the building, Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, who waited for him for five hours at the door, said that he did not leave. Speaking to journalists, a Turkish official stressed that the Saudi citizen was still in the consulate and the authorities in Istanbul were in contact with their Saudi counterparts to sort the issue out.
On Khashoggi’s own blog, an alert message was posted, which read: “Jamal Khashoggi has been arrested at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul! Join the conversation using hashtag #اختطافـجمالـخاشقجي.” Commentators on mainstream and social media alike believe that he has been arrested by the Saudi authorities because of his criticism of the “reforms” introduced by the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
For the past year, Khashoggis has been living in self-imposed exile in the US, due to the very real fear of arrest. “I do not want to be arrested,” he told Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan in March. “I do not want to be next to Issam Al-Zamil [another Saudi who criticised Bin Salman’s 2030 vision]. I do not want to be next to Salman Al-Ouda [a well-known Saudi thinker].” Before going to the consulate in Istanbul, he told a friend that he feared that he would be detained.
Writing in the Washington Post a year ago, he said that it was “painful” to see friends arrested a few years earlier. “I said nothing. I didn’t want to lose my job or my freedom. I worried about my family.” He then made a different choice: “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.”
Just hours after his disappearance, the New York Times headline was “Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Journalist, Detained in Consulate in Istanbul”. Jason Rezaian, a colleague of Khashoggi at the Washington Post wrote a piece under the headline “Post contributor and prominent Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi feared missing in Turkey” and said, “Those pushing for change — whether they are women’s rights activists, journalists or ethnic minorities — report being systematically harassed by the authorities… At each turning point, though, Jamal has offered readers of The Post insightful commentary and sharp criticism about the seemingly impenetrable country.” CNN, the BBC, the Guardian, Euro News, Al Jazeera and dozens of other outlets have covered his disappearance.
Mainstream journalists have even taken to social media to spread the word about the case. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour wrote on twitter: “WHERE is Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi? We are watching and we need answers. A valued colleague for decades, his courageous reporting is vital for any informed citizenry.” Nahal Toosi, the foreign affairs correspondent for the Politico, also used twitter: “I asked @StateDept if Pompeo asked MBS [Mohammad Bin Salman] about Jamal. This is what I got from a spox: ‘We are closely following reports of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance. We continue to seek information. For anything further, I refer you to the Turkish and Saudi governments.’”
The former director of Al Jazeera News Network, Yasser Abu Hilalah, wrote: “International media is busy with him. Every international newspaper wrote a headline about him. Saudi does not need proofs that it is practicing acts of gangs, including kidnapping, piracy and killing.”
According to Qatar-based Mauritanian writer Mohammad Al-Shanqiti, “Saudi wanted to embarrass Turkey,” and that is why Khashoggi was taken in Istanbul. Another Saudi writer in exile, Sarah Al-Otaibi, suggested that the reason for his “kidnapping” was that he is a “dissident”; she added in another tweet, “Nowhere is safe for #Saudi dissidents!”
Karen Attiah, the editor of “Global Opinions” at the Washington Post, concluded an article about Khashoggi’s disappearance with a heartbreaking appeal: “Jamal, if you have a chance to read this, please know that we at The Post are actively seeking to ensure your safety and freedom. I won’t be able to rest easy until you appear safe and sound.”
All of this makes me wonder why so many people around the world, including myself, believe that Saudi Arabia, which is supposed to be in the grip of reforms and political change to be acceptable to the free world, is still extremely unsafe for free-thinking people? Free speech is a vital part of political freedom. It looks as if Saudi Arabia still has a long, long way to go in the “reform” process.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.