16 Oct 2018 19:23 IST

Khashoggi mystery: Another geopolitical crisis in the making?

Saudi-born US resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance could have a huge economic impact

Something dramatic happened in Istanbul two weeks ago. At least this is what the Turks say. Jamal Khashoggi, a frequent critic of Saudi Arabia and its prince, Mohammed bin Salman, disappeared inside the walls of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and US permanent resident, had gone there to pick up his divorce papers so that he could marry his fiancée, who was waiting outside the building, the next day.

Turkish law requires proof of divorce before one can marry again.

Security camera footage shows Khashoggi entering the building. But there’s no footage of him leaving it. The Saudis say that the camera and recording system had been turned off for the afternoon.

It gets murkier. Turkish intelligence says that the day before Khashoggi’s 1 pm appointment, two planes carrying up to 16 Saudi agents landed in Istanbul. All of them left a few hours after Khashoggi entered the building. The bride, meanwhile, says that she waited until midnight — and finally returned home.

Unanswered questions

One gruesome theory, proposed by the Turks, is that Khashoggi was killed by the Saudis and then dismembered into small pieces. The Saudis have categorically denied this and have called on the Turkish police to investigate, saying that Khashoggi left the embassy building with his papers. Except that his fiancée has still not heard from him.

Agatha Christie is probably looking down from the heavens at this mystery. There are just too many questions unanswered and Hercule Poirot may have well begun with the following list:

    1 ~ There are thousands of Saudi dissidents; why was Khashoggi alone targeted? All that we have heard is from the Turks, who are not exactly best friends, either with the Saudis or with the US.

    2 ~ The Saudi prince is an extremely telegenic and smart guy. He loves the western media, having handed CBS a prized 60-minute interview recently. He is heavily invested in America and the world stock exchanges. Why would he take such a bold risk and have Khashoggi murdered and ‘dismembered’ in a foreign country?

      3 ~ The prince knows that he is living in a world where an accusation of sexual assault over 35 years ago can completely bring everyone to a standstill; is he really that stupid to try something like this?

        4 ~ The victim was already within sovereign Saudi territory, so why wasn’t he simply arrested and brought to Riyadh for trial?

          5 ~ The Turkish police don’t have the same resources as the American FBI or the British Scotland Yard. Until we get these international agencies involved, is it wise to draw conclusions based only on what the Turks say?

            6 ~ Although Turkey is part of the NATO alliance, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish leader, has been in a fight for his political life after his recent electoral victory. His anger is directed against President Trump who, Erdogan says, has set out to punish Turkey via tariffs for holding American pastor Andrew Brunson in jail. The lira has lost over 40 per cent of its value in a year. Why would Turkey cooperate with the US in any investigation? (Brunson was released last week and is now safely home in the US.)

              Sanctions against Saudis

              Whatever may have happened, the western media is completely consumed by this story — in part because Khashoggi was himself a journalist. His most recent stint was with the Washington Post. World leaders opposed to Trump, including all of his rivals in the US, are arguing for sanctions against the Saudi kingdom.

              Trump says that the Saudis are about to buy $110 billion worth of arms, most likely from the US, so why jeopardise the sale and impact thousands of jobs? His critics say that values matter more than money. True, but until Poirot concludes that the Prince was directly involved, wouldn’t any sanctions be premature?

              Bloomberg reports today that the Saudis have issued a statement threatening to hit back should there be any talk of sanctions. In an implicit reference to the kingdom’s petroleum wealth, the statement noted the Saudi economy “has an influential and vital role in the global economy.”

              Dangerous fallout

              This is dangerous. The kingdom is the world’s largest oil exporter. The last time the Saudis linked their exports to diplomacy and turned the spigots off, the world economy practically crawled to an abrupt stop. That was during the early 1970s, and long lines at the pump were common even in the US. True, the world woke up to realise how dependent on the West Asian oil wells it had become, and this triggered innovations in energy technology the likes of which we would never have seen but for the crisis.

              But when oil markets are already under pressure without supplies from Iran, also shut off from the world because of US policy, the slightest fear that supplies could be further constrained can roil markets. And this threat is from the largest producer within OPEC. Indeed, just this statement, Bloomberg said, caused oil prices to rise, “with Brent crude, the global benchmark, rising as much 2 per cent to $81.92 a barrel.”

              The world cannot afford another geopolitical crisis brought about by the oil oligarchies of West Asia. India and other South Asian countries are already reeling from high oil prices with all currencies at record lows against the dollar. Imagine what a further rise in oil prices can do. Don’t forget that since the last time oil hit the $100 mark ten years ago, tens of millions of more cars are on the road worldwide. The impact will be severe as governments could topple, companies could go bankrupt and the world economy could plunge into a recession.

              All because of the mysterious disappearance of one Saudi man. Hercule Poirot, where are you?