Some Saudis are treating Turkish allegations that prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in their country’s consulate in Istanbul as fake news.
Others see the alleged murder of Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as a chilling message for opponents of the Saudi government and a sign that the crown prince’s much heralded reforms are unlikely to embrace real freedom of expression.
Khashoggi, a high-profile commentator on the Middle East, entered the consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain marriage documents. Saudi officials say he left shortly afterwards but Turkish officials and his fiancee, who was waiting outside, said he never came out.
Turkish sources have told Reuters the initial assessment of the police was that Khashoggi was deliberately killed inside the consulate. Riyadh has dismissed the allegation as baseless, saying that Khashoggi left the building soon after he arrived. Neither Turkey nor the Saudis have produced evidence to prove their assertions.
For some Saudis, the alleged killing is a story cooked up by regional opponents to tarnish the kingdom’s reputation.
“I cannot talk about these things, but I am sure the accusations against my country’s leadership are wrong. We have enemies, you know,” Aziz Abdullah, a law student in Saudi Arabia, told Reuters.
For others, though, it is a sign that Saudi Arabia may be headed in the wrong direction.
Only a few Saudis interviewed by Reuters were prepared to criticize the government openly. But several who spoke on condition of anonymity said the allegations called into question the crown prince’s promises to open up the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom.
“Everyone is spooked. It’s like there are flies on the walls listening to everything. I don’t believe freedom of expression falls at all into the reform plans, just the opposite,” said a Saudi citizen in Jeddah.
“But on the other hand, you get cinemas and entertainment. It’s like an unspoken arrangement. No freedom, but you’ll have amusements. Let’s not mistake ‘amusements’ for freedom please.”
A Saudi woman in her mid-thirties described the case as “like watching a movie”.
“The government thinks they can get away with things like these, whether he was murdered or kidnapped… There is always this feeling that we need to have our guard up and watch what we are saying. We are not entirely safe,” she said.
Saudi officials did not respond to questions about such perceptions.
But they have consistently said they are committed to the course of modernization charted under Prince Mohammed, which aims to create jobs for young Saudis and make the country a more attractive place to live for locals and foreign investors.
Saudi Arabia’s biggest online newspaper Sabq accused the international media, including Reuters, of using Khashoggi’s disappearance to try to undermine that reform drive.
“They used an incident of a Saudi citizen’s disappearance to attack Riyadh and to try to stir international opinion to distort the bold steps of Saudi toward internal reform and to block the bright, new reality of the region,” Sabq said.
The crown prince, who runs the day-to-day affairs of Saudi Arabia, has won admiration from Western powers over the last year for vowing to modernize Saudi Arabia.
He has implemented a series of high-profile reforms, including ending a ban on women driving and opening cinemas in the conservative kingdom.
But those moves have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, a purge of top royals and businessmen on corruption charges, and a costly war in Yemen. He has also put all security entities under his central control.
In the week since Turkey alleged Khashoggi was killed, tightly controlled Saudi newspapers have accused Qatar and other enemies of the kingdom of whipping up a crisis over the journalist’s disappearance. The aim, they say, is to tarnish Saudi Arabia’s reputation.
Saudi Arabia’s Okaz newspaper dismissed the reports of Khashoggi’s death as Qatari “theatrics,” language echoed in a report on Abu Dhabi-based Sky News Arabia. An Okaz columnist accused Khashoggi of pursuing “terrorist objectives” like “inciting public opinion” and “destabilizing the country.”
“When we first heard the news (of Khashoggi’s disappearance), we thought this could be true. Authorities would want him for criticizing our leadership,” said Fatima, 29, a saleswoman at one of Riyadh’s glitzy shopping malls.