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Courtney Freer

Khashoggi's disappearance: A new twist in bitter Gulf battle

The Saudi Consul-General in Istanbul confirmed that Khashoggi is not in the consulate [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 8 October, 2018

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Comment: The alleged murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey will only serve to further entrench both sides of the acrimonious Gulf crisis, writes Courtney Freer.
Over the weekend, the story of Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance after his entry into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul became more muddled, in the midst of an intra-Gulf media war.

Turkish officials reported on Sunday that Khashoggi had been killed and that a 15-person security delegation of Saudi investigators had arrived in Istanbul on Tuesday as part of the operation. 

The head of the Turkish-Arab Media Association also reported that Turkish police officers who guard the consulate had checked security footage and not seen Khashoggi leave on foot from the premises.

On the Saudi side, however, a Reuters report released Sunday quotes a Saudi official dubbing the allegations as "baseless", casting doubts on whether they had come from Turkish officials "who are informed of the investigation or are authorised to comment on the issue".

The case has garnered so much international attention that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has publicly responded, calling Khashoggi "
a journalist and a friend", and making clear: "I am following the case and we will inform the world whatever the outcome."

The Saudi Consul-General in Istanbul himself, meanwhile, confirmed that Khashoggi was not in the consulate in Istanbul and that the consulate and embassy would continue efforts to search for him; he even said the notion that Khashoggi could have been abducted at the consulate was "
disgusting" and "something that should not be put forward in the media".

At this point, lacking definitive evidence on either side, it's difficult to know what will happen, and what regional responses will look like.
These actions deal a severe blow to free speech

Without a doubt, though, the implications of Khashoggi's disappearance are wide-ranging, aside from being traumatic and potentially tragic for his family and friends.

Further, if he has in fact been detained or killed by Saudi officials, these actions deal a severe blow to free speech and create considerable anxiety among Gulf-based and Gulf-focused academics and journalists, as well as sending a powerful message to Gulf nationals who publicly criticise government policies.

Until we reliably know what has happened to Khashoggi, however, the only thing that is certain is that his disappearance has both revealed and heightened tensions between the two sides of the Gulf crisis, as is shown in media coverage of the event across the Gulf.

The Saudi press seems to be advancing a narrative in which Hatice (Khadija) Cengiz, Khashoggi's Turkish fiancée, is potentially suspicious, with 
Jamal's son Saleh - who has been banned from travelling for more than a year - stating that he has never met Cengiz.

The Khashoggi family also released a statement in support of Saudi government efforts to find Jamal: "We trust the government and the actions it has taken and all the efforts being made in the case of Jamal Khashoggi."

This reaction, as well as the circulation over Twitter of news stories about the murders of a Kuwaiti businessman and the leader of an Iranian opposition television channel, aim to portray Turkey as a lawless, Islamist-led country - and Khashoggi's disappearance as a consequence of that environment, rather than part of a Saudi plot.

Qatari and Turkish interests have become increasingly aligned as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE cut off ties with Qatar in June of last year

Some commentators in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also attempted to link Khashoggi's disappearance to a "Qatari-Turkish Islamist smear campaign", claiming that either Qatari or Turkish leaderships would have better information about Khashoggi's location than the Saudis in whose consulate he was last seen.

On the Qatari media side of the rift, the report from Turkish police about Khashoggi's death continues to be circulated, as well as concern about assaults on free speech in Saudi Arabia.

Employees at Al Jazeera English posed with photos of Khashoggi and signs in support of his release.

Importantly, and not coincidentally, Qatari and Turkish interests have become increasingly aligned as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE cut off ties with Qatar in June of last year, thus leading to claims on the Saudi side of the rift of "collusion" between Ankara and Doha.

Read more: US should 'demand answers' on missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Much like many other stories since the start of the rift, then, depending on what you read, you have a completely different perception of what has happened since Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate last week.

Unlike in other stories where some middle narrative is likely to be true, however, the options here are very stark.

Whether or not the facts come out about what has happened, regional fallout will likely follow, and the existing camps of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, versus Qatar and Turkey are likely to become even more entrenched.

His disappearance has both revealed and heightened tensions between the two sides of the Gulf crisis

Concerns about political Islam - especially on the Saudi-Bahrain-UAE side - are never far from the surface. Ideology, namely sympathy for Islamists (broadly speaking), is given by them as the primary reason for the Qatari-Turkish relationship, ignoring the regional dynamics that actually make the relationship pragmatic, especially for a blockaded Qatar.

As long as lines continue to be drawn isolating - and considering fundamentally untrustworthy - countries that do not view the Brotherhood as threatening, tensions will continue to play out in the media, yet hopefully not at a major human cost.

Dr Courtney Freer is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics and a research officer for the Kuwait Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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