Saudi Arabia takes a page out of Putin's playbook with a baffling response to Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance

Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters; Middle East Monitor via Reuters; Matt Dunham – WPA Pool/Getty ImagesSaudi Arabia, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has consistently denied having any knowledge of the Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi’s whereabouts.
  • Earlier this week, Turkish media identified 15 men as suspects in the disappearance of the Saudi critic and journalist Jamal Khashoggi after he visited his country’s consulate in Istanbul last week.
  • The Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV channel aired a segment on Thursday claiming that the 15 men were tourists.
  • The report seems to be taking a page out of Russia’s playbook in the Sergei Skripal case: After Britain accused two Russian agents of poisoning Skripal in England earlier this year, the two men appeared on Russian TV to claim they were tourists going to visit the country’s famous cathedral.

Saudi Arabia appears to have taken a page out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook with a baffling response to the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi critic and journalist who went missing after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week.

The investigation into Khashoggi’s whereabouts and well-being has been highly confusing, with US and Turkish intelligence leaks, the Turkish government’s changing official line, and little more than expressions of concern from other world leaders.

Earlier this week, Sabah, a Turkish pro-government newspaper, published photos of 15 people it identified as part of a Saudi intelligence team involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

They arrived at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on October 2, the day Khashoggi disappeared, and left the country later that night, Sabah reported, citing photos it said were taken at passport control.

The team travelled on two corporate jets rented from a company often used by the Saudi government, The Guardian reported, citing unnamed Turkish authorities.

But on Thursday, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV network aired a segment alleging that the reports “falsely accused” those 15 men of involvement in the Khashoggi case, saying they were “Saudi tourists.”

Al Arabiya claimed that the “misused pictures” were of tourists flying on commercial airlines at Ataturk.

“Unlike what reports said about them arriving in a private jet, the tourists are shown to be in a terminal gate waiting area in an airport crowded with travellers,” the network said.

Watch the segment below:

This form of denial from the Saudi network appears to be taken from Russia’s playbook.

Shortly after Britain accused two Russian men of travelling to England to poison Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, with a nerve agent earlier this year, the two men appeared on national TV, claiming to be tourists going to visit the country’s “famous cathedral.”

Both men have since been identified as highly decorated members of Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, highlighted the link, tweeting in response to Al Arabiya’s segment: “Oh good God. #Saudi is pulling a #Putin.”

Riffing on the Russians’ claims earlier this year, Lister added: “I heard #Istanbul is particularly famous for the 210ft minaret at Sultan Ahmet. But the weather was bad, so they missed it & came home.”

Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have repeatedly denied knowledge of Khashoggi’s whereabouts, insisting that Khashoggi, 59, left the consulate shortly after he went in.

Khashoggi’s fiancĂ©e has said she waited outside the premises for 11 hours and never saw him.

H.A. Hellyer, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the Al Arabiya segment most likely showed what Gulf Cooperation Council media outlets “think people in power in their states want them to say.”

He told Business Insider:

“During the Khashoggi affair, before it, and probably long after it, different GCC media are going to be promoting what they think people in power in their states want them to say.

“Whether it’s true or false seems to be far less important than how their ‘loyalty’ is perceived – that’s true across the board, alas, on all sides in the GCC.

“All it does is degrade confidence in the media, which is a shame.”

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