Murder inside a consulate?

Murder inside a consulate?

The Khashoggi Affair

A disturbing aspect of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance from his country’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2 is its implication for inter-state relations. But before the diplomatic implications of this continuing sorry episode, concerning principally, but not only, Saudi Arabia-Turkey are examined, a bit of background.

Saudi Arabia is the bastion of rigid Wahhabi puritanical conservatism. Its enormous hydrocarbons-based revenues and its alliance with the US that goes back to the 1950s have been shields that have prevented a sustained and probing global gaze into its harsh social and legal codes and actions.

Like the other countries of the Arab peninsula, Saudi Arabia’s development process has also fuelled the award of huge contracts to foreign companies and led to the presence of an enormous number of expatriates, including from India. Consequently, the international community has developed a vested interest in the country’s stability and seldom comments on its social situation or its promotion of its particular religious doctrine, especially in the Muslim world.

The founder of present-day Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, died in 1953. Thereafter, the throne has been inherited by his sons, including the present King Salman. Soon after his accession in 2015, it became clear that the real power behind the throne was his son, from his third wife, Mohammad, who is in his early thirties.

He was appointed Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence. Mohammad, who is imposing his stamp on the country and the region, has attracted great international attention. In 2017, King Salman appointed Mohammad Crown Prince in place of Muhammad bin Nayef. Reports indicated that Nayef had been coerced into resigning. Mohammad has decisively moved to cement his power, but there is perhaps turbulence below the surface in the vast royal family.

Mohammad has shown great daring in his economic vision for Saudi Arabia, in changing some conservative social practices and in pursuing an aggressive regional policy targeting Iran and Qatar. He has been instrumental in allowing women to drive, a move that especially created the perception in the West that he is a committed reformer. He has also been responsible for Saudi armed engagement in Yemen to take on the Iran-supported Houthis.

Saudi objectives in Yemen have not been fully achieved. Mohammad has led the charge against Qatar, too, which has not endeared him to Turkey, which has been assisting it. Amidst all this, Mohammad has remained politically autocratic, throwing into prison those who have questioned his policies. It is here that Khashoggi comes in.

Khashoggi has had a long, but not smooth, innings in Saudi journalism. He has edited important newspapers but has had to leave his assignments because his views did not match those of the State. He has also had close connections with some influential members of the royal family; he was media adviser of Turki al Faisal, when the prince was ambassador to the UK. Turki had served for a long time as head of intelligence.

As Khashoggi saw many of his friends go to prison, he decided to leave the country. He went to the US last year and became a commentator on Saudi Arabia for the Washington Post in September 2017. In a year, he wrote 14 opinion pieces, all personally targeting Mohammad’s dictatorial ways, his repressive steps, including imprisoning even constructive critics, and his foreign policy.

Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate in Turkey on September 28 to collect papers necessary for his marriage to a Turkish lady. He was asked to come again. He visited the consulate again, with prior appointment on October 2, while his fiancée waited outside. She says he never came out of the consulate.

The Turkish authorities support her while the Saudis say that he left the consulate. Officially sanctioned leaks in the Turkish media assert that a 15-member killing squad came from Saudi Arabia to Istanbul, murdered Khashoggi in the consulate and disposed of his body. The squad left Turkey soon thereafter.

The Saudis deny the accusation. Its media is pointing to a Qatari-inspired conspiracy. From the totality of reports that have emerged till now, there is little doubt that something grave happened to Khashoggi in the consulate. This is notwithstanding the strained Saudi-Turkish relationship and spin-doctoring that is taking place among interested parties in the region and the West.

There are reports that Salman sent an elderly nephew, Khalid bin Feisal, to quietly discuss issues with Turkey. This is in keeping with the old pattern of Saudi diplomacy, and contrary to Mohammad’s own in-your-face-approach. Turkey, too, has not taken the issue to a point of no return as it has refrained from lodging any formal criminal proceedings. 

There have been reports that the Saudi authorities have lured or abducted three dissident princes from the West in the past. If this is true, it would indicate that they are not averse to taking strong-arm action abroad. However, the use of the consulate for murder, if true, would put the action in another orbit altogether. While diplomatic and consulate premises enjoy immunity, they are never used for criminal acts. That would break the very basis on which the structure of diplomatic immunities is erected and would impair the smooth conduct of international diplomacy.

The system of immunities and privileges of diplomatic agents is being questioned. The idea of absolute immunity of diplomats is no longer tenable but their official acts are safeguarded. It is noteworthy that consulate officials do not have immunity against grave crimes. That has not led to the logical next step — that if a consulate official commits a crime in the consulate, the local police should have the right to enter. The Khashoggi case can lead to such thinking.

As diplomatic gamesmanship continues in a matter that is no longer a bilateral Saudi-Turkish matter, the international community’s concern is to maintain diplomatic structures that can handle espionage but not murder. This case is far worse than the charges against Russia for murdering former agents in the UK, for it concerns the sanctity of diplomatic premises.

(The writer is former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)