A Saudi journalist who has written Washington Post columns critical of the kingdom’s assertive crown prince has gone missing while on a visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the newspaper and his supporters said Wednesday, raising concerns over his safety.
Jamal Khashoggi’s personal website bore a banner saying “Jamal has been arrested at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul!” without elaborating. A statement from Saudi Arabia denied that and said Khashoggi left immediately after visiting the consulate, though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman told reporters that authorities believed the journalist was still there.
The mystery continued into Wednesday night, as his supporters linked his disappearance to the arrest of other businessmen, politicians and activists amid 33-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power.
“He went in, and as far as I know, he didn’t come out. And if he did exit, we have no news of him. His phones are with me. I have the keys to his house here,” his fiancee told the Associated Press. “Something has happened to him and we don’t know what and how it has happened.”
Khashoggi, 59, is a longtime Saudi journalist, foreign correspondent, editor and columnist whose work has been controversial in the past in the ultraconservative Sunni kingdom. He went into a self-imposed exile in the United States following the ascension of Prince Mohammed, now next in line to the throne to his father, the 82-year-old King Salman.
As a contributor to the Post, Khashoggi has written extensively about Saudi Arabia, including criticizing its war in Yemen, its recent diplomatic spat with Canada and its arrest of women’s rights activists after the lifting of a ban on women driving.
“The arrests illuminate the predicament confronting all Saudis. We are being asked to abandon any hope of political freedom, and to keep quiet about arrests and travel bans that impact not only the critics but also their families,” Khashoggi wrote in a May 21 column for the Post. “We are expected to vigorously applaud social reforms and heap praise on the crown prince while avoiding any reference to the pioneering Saudis who dared to address these issues decades ago.”
On Tuesday, Khashoggi entered the consulate to get paperwork he needed to be married next week, said his fiancee, Hatice, who gave only her first name for fear of retribution. He gave her his cellphones for safekeeping, something common as embassies throughout the Middle East routinely require phones to be left outside as a security precaution.
“I don’t know what has happened to him. I can’t even guess how such a thing can happen to him,” his fiancee said. “There is no law or lawsuit against him. He is not a suspect, he has not been convicted. There is nothing against him. He is just a man whose country doesn’t like his writings or his opinions.”
The Post said it remained “very concerned” about Khashoggi.
“It would be unfair and outrageous if he has been detained for his work as a journalist and commentator,” the Post’s international opinion editor, Eli Lopez, said in a statement. “We hope that he is safe and that we can hear from him soon.”
The U.S. State Department said it was aware of Khashoggi’s disappearance and said it was “seeking more information at this time.”
A statement Wednesday from Saudi Arabia sent to the AP said that “Mr. Khashoggi visited the consulate to request paperwork related to his marital status and exited shortly thereafter.”
“The government of Saudi Arabia follows up diligently on any reports related to the safety of any of its citizens and will continue to follow up on these reports,” the statement said. It did not elaborate.
That was quickly contradicted by Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.
“According to the information we have, this person who is a Saudi citizen is still at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul,” he said. “We don’t have information to the contrary.”
Khashoggi was known for his interviews and travels with Osama bin Laden between 1987 and 1995, including in Afghanistan, where he wrote about the battle against the Soviet occupation. In the early 1990s, he tried to persuade Bin Laden to reconcile with the Saudi royal family and return home from his base in Sudan, but the Al Qaeda leader refused.
Khashoggi maintained ties with Saudi elite and launched a satellite news channel, Al-Arab, from Bahrain in 2015 with the backing of Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. The channel stayed on the air for less than 11 hours before being shut down. Its billionaire backer was detained in the Ritz Carlton roundup overseen by Prince Mohammed in 2017.
The Vienna-based International Press Institute wrote a letter to King Salman calling on the monarch to ensure Khashoggi’s immediate release.
“If, as it claims, Saudi Arabia truly wishes to transition to a more open society, it will have to accept the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” wrote Ravi R. Prasad, the institute’s head of advocacy.
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also expressed concern, saying “given the Saudi authorities’ pattern of quietly detaining critical journalists, Khashoggi’s failure to emerge from the Saudi Consulate on the day he entered is a cause for alarm.”
Khashoggi himself advocated for more social freedoms in the kingdom in his columns at the Post.
“Presently, Saudi citizens no longer understand the rationale behind the relentless wave of arrests,” Khashoggi wrote in an Aug. 7 column. “These arbitrary arrests are forcing many into silence, and a few others have even quietly left the country.”
He offered this advice to the kingdom: “There is a better way for the kingdom to avoid Western criticism: Simply free human rights activists, and stop the unnecessary arrests that have diminished the Saudi image.”