A year ago on Wednesday, dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi strode boldly into the Saudi consulate to collect divorce papers ahead of his remarriage to his Turkish fiancee Hatice Cengiz, who waited for him outside. He was never seen again.
As soon as he entered the building he was shown to the consul's office, where he was incapacitated by an injection and smothered by a hit squad dispatched by Riyadh.
Unbeknownst to the Saudis, Turkish intelligence had secreted listening devices in the consulate. The crime, from preparation to execution, was recorded from the time the Saudi team arrived until Khashoggi’s corpse was dismembered by a forensic pathologist and body parts packed in suitcases for disposal. His remains have not been found.
The Saudis never expected this horror story would be broadcast around the world. Khashoggi has received more international attention than the 15 Saudis who, on orders from al-Qaeda, crashed commercial aircraft into the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington in 2001.
Even before the Turks shared their recordings, Khashoggi’s disappearance and presumed murder had caught the public imagination because it was so macabre and blatant. The Saudis had previously kidnapped and expatriated exiled regime opponents and critics, but had not resorted to murder in a foreign mission. Khashoggi thought he was being kidnapped until his executioners put a plastic bag over his head.
Since the murder implicated Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and his covert operations chief, Saud al-Qahtani, the plot might have been hatched by Agatha Christie. Qahtani has disappeared. The prince has owned up while admitting nothing.
“I get all the responsibility because it happened under my watch,” he said.
Qahtani has been dismissed but has not been charged. Eleven members of the team are under trial in a closed court, with five facing execution. There is no transparency in the proceedings.
Servant turned critic
The Saudis thought they could get away with killing Khashoggi, a loyal servant of the realm who turned critic after the prince detained several hundred senior royals and leading Saudi businessmen in a crackdown on corruption in November 2017.
Although the killing became a sensation in global media, the prince and the kingdom did not suffer serious repercussions. In the US, which is the kingdom’s chief ally, the prince was protected by his close connection with Trump family, which ignored the CIA assessment that he had ordered the murder.
The Saudis did not take into account that, in exile, Khashoggi had gained a degree of prominence by exposing Riyadh’s bad behaviour in columns in the Washington Post and at public gatherings. He also launched a plan to establish a secure internet network to promote democratic reform within the kingdom.
They also did not expect Turkish intelligence to bug the consulate or Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to pursue the murder investigation and the culprits. Erdogan's tenacity prompted the US Human Rights Council to probe the killing and conclude Khashoggi was a victim of a premeditated extrajudicial execution which constituted an "international crime".
On the economic front, the prince's situation soon reverted to "business as usual". He was not shunned at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires a month after the murder and was welcomed at the World Economic Forum in January this year.
In February, he was celebrated with glitz and glitter during visits to India and Pakistan. Tycoons and bankers will return to his "Davos in the Desert" investment forum this month, although last year many executives stayed away due to Khashoggi's murder.