Saudi prince says Turkey can search consulate for missing critic

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ISTANBUL, Turkey (BLOOMBERG) - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said he is ready to allow Turkey to search the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul for a Saudi journalist critical of his rule who went missing after entering the building.

"The premises are sovereign territory, but we will allow them to enter and search and do whatever they want to do," Prince Mohammed said in an interview on Wednesday (Oct 4) at a royal palace in Riyadh.

"We have nothing to hide."

Jamal Khashoggi, who's been living in self-imposed exile for the past year, has been missing since Tuesday.

His fiancee and friends say they fear he has been detained or kidnapped for his criticism of the government, and Turkish authorities believe he is still inside the consulate. The Prince, however, said Khashoggi left the building not long after he entered.

Speculation that Khashoggi has been detained focused new attention on what critics say is a broad crackdown on dissent under Prince Mohammed that has coincided with his attempts to loosen social restrictions and create a more dynamic economy less reliant on oil.

It also risks worsening ties between the kingdom and Turkey, already strained over Ankara's support of political Islam. Turkey summoned the Saudi ambassador to explain the journalist's disappearance.

The 33-year-old heir to the Saudi throne used the interview with Bloomberg to defend actions that have tarnished his reputation abroad as a man trying to overhaul one of the world's last remaining absolute monarchies. He said the arrests of clerics, women activists and some businessmen over the past year were a small price to pay for peacefully eradicating extremism in the world's top oil exporter.

The prince said authorities have detained about 1,500 people over the past three years on national security grounds rather than as part of a clampdown on dissent. The number, he said, pales in comparison with Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has locked up tens of thousands since a failed coup against him in 2016.

"I didn't call myself a reformer of Saudi Arabia," Prince Mohammed said when questioned about criticism of the arrests. "I am the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and I am trying to do the best that I can do through my position."

The crackdown has created some striking juxtapositions. Shortly before lifting a decades-old ban on women driving this year, authorities rounded up several of the kingdom's most prominent women rights activists, charging some of them with collaborating with unspecified hostile foreign entities. Others arrested earlier include Salman Al-Odah, a popular cleric who's facing the death penalty.

The arrests have triggered condemnation from international human rights groups and spilled into foreign policy. When Canada called for the release of two female activists, the Saudi government responded by banning the Canadian ambassador from returning to Riyadh.

The Crown Prince said he was not concerned about his image overseas.

"I don't care how the world views me as much as I care about what's in the interest of the country and the Saudi people," he said. "Whatever serves the Saudi people and Saudi Arabia as a country, I will do it with full force."

Movements for change around the world have come "with a price," the prince said. Ending slavery in the US, for instance, was only possible after a civil war, he added.

"Here we are trying to get rid of extremism and terrorism without civil war, without stopping the country from growing," he said. "So if there is a small price in that area, it's better than paying a big debt to do that move."

The Prince accused some of those held of giving information to intelligence agencies connected to regional foes Qatar and Iran, and said the government had evidence including videos and recorded calls. He also rejected claims that the arrests have created a climate of fear at home, saying his actions have overwhelming support among Saudis.

Critics such as Khashoggi say otherwise.

An official and unofficial adviser to senior Saudi royals, Khashoggi said last year he moved to the US because of concerns he would be arrested in Saudi Arabia or prevented from travelling abroad.

"I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice," he wrote in the Washington Post, where he's been a regular contributor. "To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot."

On Wednesday, Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Erdogan, said Turkey believed Khashoggi was still inside the consulate.

"We will continue following the matter closely. There is an international law, Turkish law and humanitarian aspect in this issue," he said.

Asked in the interview whether the journalist faces charges in Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed said it was first important to discover where Khashoggi was.

"If he's in Saudi Arabia, I would know that," he said.

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