Officials from the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union expressed concern over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Monday and asked the government of Saudi Arabia to conduct a thorough investigation.
Khashoggi has not been seen since he entered the Saudi embassy in Istanbul last Tuesday. Turkish officials have accused the Saudis of imprisoning or murdering him because he criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his policies related to Qatar, Iran, and political Islam.
“I don’t like hearing about it,” President Donald Trump said of Khashoggi’s disappearance on Monday.
“Hopefully that will sort itself out,” he added. “Right now, nobody knows anything about it, but there’s some pretty bad stories going around. I do not like it.”
“We have seen conflicting reports on the safety and whereabouts of prominent Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. As the President has conveyed, the United States is concerned by his disappearance,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
“State Department senior officials have spoken with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through diplomatic channels about this matter,” Pompeo reported. “We call on the government of Saudi Arabia to support a thorough investigation of Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and to be transparent about the results of that investigation.”
The Khashoggi disappearance is clearly uncomfortable for the Trump administration because it has developed a close relationship with Saudi Arabia and endorsed the reform agenda of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known by his initials “MBS,” who spent years developing and implementing a plan to make Saudi Arabia a more open and hospitable investment environment for the Western world. The Saudis and their allies are also key to the administration’s counter-terrorism strategy and its effort to realign U.S. policy in the Middle East away from Iran after the Obama administration spent eight years cultivating an alliance with Tehran.
The obvious difficulty of imposing ambitious reforms on the Kingdom led the administration to cut MBS some slack for heavy-handed tactics, but if Khashoggi was kidnapped or murdered by Saudi officers in Turkey (with his corpse dismembered to dispose of the evidence, according to the most lurid rumors in Turkish circles) it could become a major diplomatic crisis for the White House.
Tom Rogan at the Washington Examiner advised Pompeo to take the lead and meet privately with MBS to avoid making the situation “more of a spectacle than it already is.” He also worried that pushing the Saudis too hard in public could drive them into the waiting arms of Russia, which sets a far lower bar for human rights and press freedom.
“The first priority is to find out what the Saudis have done and why. While Pompeo probably already knows, thanks to U.S. intelligence, he must get the crown prince’s personal explanation. Then President Trump can respond,” Rogan advised.
Unfortunately, time is running out for subtle behind-the-scenes maneuvers. Congress is getting involved, as House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday described Khashoggi’s disappearance as “very disturbing” and called for both Turkey and Saudi Arabia to provide “clear facts” immediately.
European Union policy chief Federica Mogherini expressed support for Pompeo’s statement on Tuesday and said the EU is “fully aligned with the U.S. position on this.”
“We expect a full-out investigation and full transparency from Saudi authorities on what happened,” Mogherini said.
U.N. spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said the “apparent enforced disappearance” of Khashoggi is a matter of “deep concern” to the human rights office in a press conference in Geneva on Tuesday.
“If reports of his death and the extraordinary circumstances leading up to it are true, this is truly shocking,” Shamdasani said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and General Assembly President Maria Espinosa Garces also issued statements saying they are “very concerned” about the missing journalist.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared on Monday that the burden of proof lies upon Saudi Arabia, challenging the Saudis to release security footage that would prove their contention Khashoggi left the Istanbul consulate before disappearing.
“Now when this person enters, whose duty is it to prove that he left or not?” Erdogan asked. “Don’t you have cameras and other things? Why don’t you prove it, you have to prove it.”
Turkish authorities have claimed they have surveillance camera video of Khashoggi entering the consulate but never leaving. This footage has not been officially released, but on Tuesday the Washington Post, which employs Khashoggi as a contributor, published an image that showed Khashoggi walking into the consulate building last Tuesday. The Post said it obtained this image from a “person close to the investigation.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry reported on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia has granted a request to allow Turkish investigators into the Istanbul consulate. The Foreign Ministry said Saudi officials have indicated their willingness to cooperate in the investigation.
Turkish police are also said to be investigating two private aircraft that landed in Istanbul last Tuesday before Khashoggi’s disappearance, carrying 15 persons of interest to the case. Rumors from within the Turkish government have portrayed these individuals as a squad dispatched from Saudi Arabia to abduct or murder Khashoggi.