Saudi Arabia’s abuse of its diplomatic mission in Istanbul is a
worrying sign for diplomacy
At the risk of sounding flippant, the past week’s events surrounding the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi feel like a plot pulled from an Agatha Christie novel. Let’s be clear: a man is probably dead, more than likely murdered. That alone demands justice. Beyond that, there are complex issues at play over the role of diplomacy and diplomatic missions in a world increasingly overrun by paranoia and mistrust. What happened at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul is a symptom of a much more virulent malaise that has struck one of the world’s most important institutions.
►What does th s tell us more broadly about the state of d plomacy n the world?
The content of what diplomacy has to deal with has expanded over time. There was a period when relations between countries were just state to state; the job of diplomats was to pass notes and information between the host country and their own. Nowadays, when we talk about foreign policy, we’re talking about public opinion, parliaments, multinationals, civil society organizations and other public and private actors. The content of diplomacy has expanded. Consequently, diplomatic missions have acquired added responsibilities and also have had to use means that they may not be sufficiently familiar with, including what might be euphemistically called unorthodox means. This is not just Saudi Arabia. Recently, a number of Russian diplomats were expelled from Greece, for example, because they were trying to influence Greek nationalists.
►There seem to be a lot of these k nds of operat ons - nfluence operat ons, counter-operat ons, etc. - espec ally now n an age of rap d mob l ty of both human be ngs and nformat on. Is th s someth ng that we’re go ng to see more of n the future?
I’m inclined to say yes. Let’s take an example. There is a phenomenon emerging today that we have to be concerned with: Throughout history, there have always been refugees and asylum seekers but in recent years, because of the extensive mobility of people - the relative ease with which information travels, the relative ease with which people travel - the number of asylum seekers has increased. The search for asylum puts the receiving countries in a difficult position. Granting asylum to people from other societies puts their relations with those societies at risk. But at the same time, especially for democracies, it is almost obligatory that they respond to the clamor of people who claim to be at risk because of having expressed their opinions. Many non-democratic societies now have people who have left those societies and engage in activities that are highly critical of them. Of course, the societies from which the asylum seekers come want to control these people since authoritarian systems are very intolerant of criticism. Authoritarian governments, since the spread of Information is now instantaneous and widely diffused, are all the more interested in muzzling criticism. These governments know that public opinion abroad is much more assertive in determining foreign policy and can easily turn against them with information that exposes their violations of human rights and other excesses they commit.
►Let’s look at th s spec f c nc dent n Istanbul. How were the norms of d plomat c m ss ons subverted to serve the pol t cal goals of the Saud government?
This whole thing is highly enigmatic and I have difficulty in interpreting it from a variety of perspectives. It is clear that Mr. Khashoggi was a journalist that the Saudi regime did not appreciate. It also appears to be the case that they wanted to silence him. That was rather difficult as long as he was in the U.S. so they forced him to follow bureaucratic procedures in Turkey. They thought this is a place where they could operate more easily. It appears to be rather carefully planned: First, the man is told that he has to get his wedding papers or whatever from Istanbul rather than Washington. This is an unreasonable demand. Second, the man is aware that he is in danger so he goes to the consulate with his fiancée and tells her if he doesn’t come out, to call such and such people. Third, the Saudi government flies in some suspicious characters and apparently it also asks the Turkish employees at the consul general’s residence to stay home that day.
All “circumstantial” evidence points to an operation to get rid of this man. What I cannot understand is the poor judgment of the Saudi government. It appears to have been blinded by its anger to such a degree that it thought it could take this risk and get away with it. But the Saudis did not understand that no matter where they conducted this operation, it would not remain solely a domestic concern of the government where the act was committed. This is a challenge to diplomatic traditions that have been established since the mid-17th century to which all members of the international communi- ty subscribe. Its gross violation by the Saudis makes it difficult for all countries to conduct reliable relations with the Saudi regime. Worse, it may invite or legitimize unorthodox practices employed by other countries unless there is a strong response to it. Already, we know some countries commit terrible crimes but they do not involve their diplomatic missions directly in them. Let us not forget that the North Korean leader had his brother killed in Malaysia and the Russians are noted for using poisons or poisonous gasses to deal with their opponents. In both those cases, and others, diplomatic missions may have played a role in the planning and but were not directly involved in the execution.
►How can governments prevent th s from happen ng?
This of course is a matter on which all states have to exercise judgment and hopefully decide that to observe diplomatic traditions, to keep the lines of communications between states open, is more important than any short-term benefit that may derive from usurping the rules and killing critics. What happened in Istanbul is not a domestic but a global concern because it pertains to how diplomatic privileges are used. Therefore, it is imperative that the world respond in unison.
►What should the response be?
The first thing would be to ask the Saudi government to close the Istanbul consulate and reduce its personnel in the Ankara embassy to a minimum. Next would be for all countries to do similar things. The United Nations could also condemn the Saudis. And the U.S. should certainly withdraw some of the support it has been unquestioningly giving to them. The Saudis, and any other regime that believes it can subvert diplomatic norms in this way, should be made to understand that this is unacceptable.