Missing journalist's case forces Trump's hand on Riyadh

Human rights activists hold pictures of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct 9, 2018.
Human rights activists hold pictures of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct 9, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • Allegations that Saudi Arabia killed a journalist inside its consulate in Istanbul have forced US President Donald Trump into a position he never expected - raising human rights with the kingdom he has steadfastly supported.

Saudi Arabia was the first foreign destination for Mr Trump after he became President. He has lavished praise on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and closely allied himself with the kingdom in a push to isolate the Sunni state's regional Shi'ite rival Iran.

Mr Trump told reporters on Tuesday he knew nothing about the fate of Mr Jamal Khashoggi, 59, a prominent opinion writer living in the United States and a contributor to the Washington Post.

He said he planned to contact the Saudi authorities over the case. While Mr Trump himself has only said he was "concerned", Vice-President Mike Pence yesterday said the US is ready to help in any way in the investigation.

On Monday, Mr Pence had declared himself "deeply troubled" by the allegations that Mr Khashoggi was killed after he entered the Saudi consulate, saying it would be "tragic" if true.

Separately, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged a "thorough" investigation with "transparent" findings about the fate of Mr Khashoggi, whom Saudi officials insist left the consulate in Istanbul.

Analysts said the Trump administration felt obliged to speak out on Mr Khashoggi after increasing attention from the media and especially on Capitol Hill, where prominent lawmakers on both sides have voiced outrage over the journalist's detention or possible killing.


Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said it was "imperative" that Riyadh give clear answers on what happened to Mr Khashoggi.

"If there was any truth to the allegations of wrongdoing by the Saudi government, it would be devastating to the US-Saudi relationship and there will be a heavy price to be paid - economically and otherwise," Mr Graham wrote on Twitter. "Our country's values should be and must be a cornerstone of our foreign policy with foes and allies alike."

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that US intelligence services had intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture the Saudi journalist. The Saudis were discussing a plan to lure Mr Khashoggi back to the kingdom, the newspaper reported, citing a person familiar with the communications, which were intercepted before he vanished.

Mr Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2 and is feared to be detained or dead. It was not clear whether the Saudis wanted to interrogate or kill him, or whether the US warned the journalist he was a target, the person said.

Mr Trump had stayed silent on Saudi human rights as the US backs the Saudi-led air campaign against rebels in Yemen, and when Crown Prince Mohammed detained dozens of people in a controversial crackdown last year.

Analysts said Mr Trump contributed to an atmosphere that may have empowered Saudi Arabia to silence a critic abroad.

The Khashoggi case puts the Trump administration unexpectedly on the side of Turkey, where two top government officials have been slapped with US sanctions over the detention of an American pastor.

A Turkish official, speaking anonymously and without providing evidence, has said Mr Khashoggi was murdered by a 15-member team sent for the task.

The Saudi government has denied the allegation, but without producing any proof to back up Crown Prince Mohammed's assertion that Mr Khashoggi exited the building.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2018, with the headline 'Missing journalist's case forces Trump's hand on Riyadh'. Subscribe