On Tuesday, the 59-year-old Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to do some paperwork relating to a divorce. He has not been seen since.
Khashoggi, whom I've met once in Washington, is a critic of the current Saudi government. He was raised in and long belonged to the Saudi elite, but moved to Washington last year in a sort of self-imposed exile so that he could write freely about the kingdom. He's no radical, and has never supported violence; moreover, he is largely supportive of the economic and social reforms promised by Mohammed bin Salman. He has been critical of the lack of due process and respect for human rights, and the absence of political reforms.
And now he is missing, never seen again after entering the consulate. The Saudi government says he left the building. This is not at all credible, because if so he has been totally incommunicado. His fiancé is of course frantic.
The only logical explanations are that the Saudi government is either keeping him in the consulate building or has kidnapped him and taken him to Saudi Arabia.
I've been generally supportive of Mohammed bin Salman's reforms and proposed reforms in the economic and social sphere, but it's obvious that no political reforms are under way or are contemplated. Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy. Still, this incident is something new: the Saudis have not previously kidnapped or seized anyone outside the kingdom's borders. Doing so is reminiscent of old Soviet and new Putin-era Russian behavior, and it should not be tolerated.
It's also plain stupid. Talleyrand is supposed to have said of a political execution in revolutionary France that "It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake." Like the ridiculous and indefensible Saudi treatment of Canada after one tweet by its minister of foreign affairs criticizing the Saudi government, this kind of conduct raises grave doubts among friends, supporters, potential investors, and Western governments.
Best outcome: the Saudi government releases Khashoggi and blames some official for misconduct in detaining him. Blame the consulate or some policemen. But release Khashoggi, or the reputation of the current Saudi government will be harmed irreparably.