Erdogan Demands Saudis Prove Missing Critic Left Consulate

(Bloomberg) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded proof from Saudi Arabia that a critic who was last seen entering its consulate in Istanbul left the building alive.

The disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who had been living in self-imposed exile for the past year, has injected new complications into the two Sunni Muslim powers’ already-fraught relations. Erdogan said in a speech in Budapest that “it’s my political and humanitarian duty to chase this matter.”

Erdogan Demands Saudis Prove Missing Critic Left Consulate

Turkey asked Saudi Arabia earlier Monday for permission to search the consulate, according to CNNTurk. It wasn’t clear whether the Saudi ambassador accepted the request. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told Bloomberg last week he was prepared to allow such a search, adding that Khashoggi, who wrote columns for the Washington Post, had left the building last week shortly after entering it.

A Turkish official, speaking anonymously and without providing evidence, has said Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate, a claim the Saudi government has vehemently denied.

Officials at the Saudi consulate “can’t salvage themselves” by simply claiming the journalist left the premises and must prove it with video footage, Erdogan said.

Balancing Interests

Turkey’s entanglement in Khashoggi’s disappearance is just the latest snarl in its uneasy ties with Saudi Arabia. The kingdom opposes Turkey’s support of political Islam, while Ankara has sided with Qatar in a diplomatic dispute with a Saudi-led coalition.

At the same time, Ankara and Riyadh find themselves aligned on certain regional issues -- opposing Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule in Syria, for example. Turkey may also be loathe to become embroiled in a feud with oil-rich Saudi Arabia at a time when its economy is grappling with soaring inflation, investor jitters about central-bank independence and recent U.S. sanctions. Turkey exported $2.9 billion in goods to Saudi Arabia in 2017 and ran a trade surplus of $800 million.

Cinzia Bianco, Middle East and Gulf analyst for Gulf State Analytics in London, said if Khashoggi’s case is not resolved quickly, relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia will “deteriorate further.”

New Level?

If evidence implicates the Saudi government in Khashoggi’s disappearance or death, it would also indicate a new level of violence that authorities are willing to undertake to silence criticism of Prince Mohammed, whose jailing of opponents at home has undercut his efforts to fashion himself as a modernizer of his conservative country. U.S. senators have already suggested that if the allegations of murder are confirmed, then Saudi Arabia should expect repercussions.

Khashoggi, 59, a onetime adviser to Saudi royals, hasn’t been seen or heard from since he went into the consulate on Oct. 2 to get documents that would allow him to marry a Turkish woman. His fiancee and friends initially said they feared he was detained or kidnapped over his criticism of the Saudi government.

Germany, which ended its yearlong rift with the kingdom last month, weighed in on Khashoggi’s disappearance Monday, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Christopher Burger expressing concern about his fate and calling for a swift resolution to the case.

About a dozen of Khashoggi’s friends and supporters gathered outside the Saudi consulate on Monday, holding pictures of him dressed in the traditional white robe. They included Ayman Nour, a former candidate for Egypt’s presidency, and Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist, politician and a co-recipient of the Nobel peace prize for her role in her country’s Arab Spring protests.

“He has vanished because he has told the truth,” Karman said. "We call for an international investigation committee."

Oil Prices

Khashoggi vanished at a time when President Donald Trump is pressing Saudi Arabia hard to do more to ease oil prices. If he was murdered by Saudi agents as alleged by the Turkish official, it may cause additional tensions with the U.S. Senate, despite the generally warm ties with Trump’s administration, which shares Saudi Arabia’s animus toward Iran.

“If there was any truth to the allegations of wrongdoing by the Saudi government it would be devastating to the US-Saudi relationship and there will be a heavy price to be paid -- economically and otherwise,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Twitter.

The case has focused attention on what critics say is a broad crackdown on dissent under Prince Mohammed that has coincided with his attempts to liberalize Saudi society and create a more dynamic economy less reliant on oil. The government has arrested dozens of clerics, academics, writers, feminists, businessmen and journalists, but Prince Mohammed told Bloomberg that was a small price to pay for peacefully eradicating extremism in the world’s top oil exporter.

“The Gulf Kingdom routinely uses draconian laws to crack down on peaceful dissent at home, and has even arrested dissidents abroad in the past,” human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement. “But the enforced disappearance -- and now reported assassination -- of one of its citizens who had sought asylum abroad should set alarm bells ringing.”

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