On October 2nd, 2018, Saudi journalist-in-exile and frequent critic of the country’s ruling monarchy Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to obtain routine documentation for his upcoming marriage to his Turkish fiancée Hatice Cengiz. He was never seen leaving—and, according to the New York Times, Turkish officials are anonymously confirming that investigators believe he was killed inside. Other sources said he may have been later dismembered to smuggle his body out of the building.
Much remains unknown about what happened inside the embassy. The Times noted that Turkish officials have been reluctant to publicly accuse the Saudi government of killing Khashoggi, and the Saudi government has been adamant no such thing happened. It’s possible that instead of being brazenly murdered, Khashoggi was the subject of a brazen kidnapping. The Washington Post’s sources, however, said one source relayed that investigators believe a 15-man Saudi assassination team arrived in Turkey as part of a “preplanned murder.” And the incident has put Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the day-to-day ruler of the kingdom who has promoted himself as a reformer and robot-loving tech innovator while simultaneously cracking down on dissent, right in the spotlight.
Last year, bin Salman announced plans for a 10,000 square mile-plus city named Neom, saying it would be “drone-friendly and a center for the development of robotics” and “a place for dreamers who want to create something new in the world, something extraordinary.” This year, the crown prince toured Silicon Valley, meeting some of its titans of industry including Google co-founder Sergey Brin and CEO Sundar Pichai, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and CEO Satya Nadella, and Apple CEO Tim Cook, as well as venture capitalists and executives from other firms. Later, it emerged that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund was involved in discussions with Tesla CEO Elon Musk about a possible plan to take the company private (that was never actually agreed upon).
Bin Salman was also an aggressive booster of the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund’s $3.5 billion investment in Uber in 2016 and a massive deal with Softbank Group Corp. that is still growing, according to Bloomberg.
As Recode recently noted, this is all part of a pattern in which “Riyadh is an ascendant, underrated power player in Silicon Valley finance... showing muscle and projecting strength that makes them more and more indistinguishable from Silicon Valley’s other homegrown power players.” This effort is part of bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan, which more or less entails diversifying the country’s mostly oil-based economy into tech and logistics. Those plans involve investments in sectors like chemicals, plastics, data centers, and high-tech military gear, according to CNBC. The fumbled Tesla deal would have also involved “broader plans to create new industries in solar-power generation, battery storage and electric-vehicle production,” the Wall Street Journal wrote. The crown prince’s political supporters have at times tried to present him as a Silicon Valley-style disruptor.
But bin Salman is also in control of the Saudi security services. As the Times wrote on Saturday, if Saudi officials really ordered Khashoggi detained and killed, it will be much harder for potential business partners to ignore his atrocious human rights record:
Despite orchestrating the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, waging a brutal war in Yemen and locking up hundreds of prominent Saudis in a luxury hotel on accusations of corruption, the prince has won Western supporters, including the government of the United States, that have embraced his economic policies and limited social reforms.
But Mr. Khashoggi’s death in Turkey — if confirmed — could change all that. It would likely be widely viewed as a brazen violation of international norms and a grave escalation of what critics have called reckless and ruthless efforts by the prince to consolidate power and stamp out dissent at home and abroad.
One article by Khashoggi that appeared in a Washington Post roundup of his work specifically alluded to bin Salman’s tour of his “beloved Silicon Valley” and Saudi plans to build new cities. A plainly critical Khashoggi urged the crown prince to tour the city of Detroit to seek lessons on how it reinvented itself after the crash of the auto industry:
Many inner cities in Saudi Arabia fester today as Detroit once did — they are miserable Third World slums that completely mock the oil riches of the kingdom. So, before MBS ventures into building new cities, perhaps he should deal with the old ones. During his visit to Egypt, which kicked off his current global tour, the crown prince revealed his shared dream with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of building a prosperous region in northern Saudi Arabia stretching across the Gulf of Aqaba to Egypt — a “Riviera of the Red Sea” to attract millions of tourists yearly. Yet since neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt has a free press, no one asked the two leaders about Egypt’s numerous tourist destinations, such as Sharm El Sheikh, Hurghada and El Gouna. All have gorgeous beaches on the very same coast and a chronic lack of tourists; they are sad shadows of the resorts they used to be. Surely that problem should be addressed before splashing out precious government funds on still more cities in the sand.
In other columns, Khashoggi denounced bin Salman’s repression of dissent, saying all that could be seen of the crown prince’s promised reforms was “the recent wave of arrests,” and also was critical of the brutal Saudi war in Yemen and its one-sided crackdown on extremism. In another, he wrote that bin Salman “did the right thing for Saudi Arabia” by ending a ban on women drivers—reportedly an important factor in Uber’s relationship with the kingdom—but added that the prince should release women activists arrested for criticizing the government. In other words, much of the work that may have put Khashoggi in danger touched upon bin Salman’s efforts to pitch Saudi Arabia as a reforming nation ready to be at the forefront of innovation.
It’s not clear whether those efforts would have ever worked. As the Middle East Eye noted earlier this year, there are significant obstacles between the Vision 2030 plan and current reality, including a private workforce heavily reliant on imported labor, the lack of underlying infrastructure and commerce that is not dependent on oil subsidies, and prohibitions against freedom of speech that could turn off social media giants and advertisers. If Turkish authorities publicly provide evidence that Khashoggi was indeed killed, those plans could become even more difficult to pull off.
Al Jazeera’s Jamal Elshayyal reported that if “Turkish authorities can prove unequivocally that Saudi agents essentially murdered a journalist inside the consulate in Istanbul, it would require some sort of strong reaction. One of the political sources that Al Jazeera spoke to on Saturday said it was confident Turkey’s reaction would be ‘very strong’... Al Jazeera has also learned in the next day or so video material will be released showing details of the assassination.”
“Khashoggi’s reported kidnapping and even murder in the safe confines of the Saudi consulate is a deliberate strategy to sow fear into every Saudi who has spoken out about the government’s shortcomings, no matter how modestly or gently,” Human Rights Watch’s executive director for Middle East and North Africa, Sarah Leah Whitson, told the Guardian. “The Saudi government wants them to know they are not safe inside or outside Saudi, and that no law or government can protect them.”