Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has denied the kingdom is detaining a prominent journalist in Turkey and defended himself against accusations the episode was tarnishing his image as a reformer.
Breaking his silence on the mystery of Jamal Khashoggi‘s disappearance, Prince Mohammed bin Salman said he did not know his whereabouts but that Riyadh was happy to help in any investigation.
Mr Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the royal family who has a regular column in the Washington Post, has been missing for three days since visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to update some paperwork needed for a marriage licence.
His Turkish fiancée, who was waiting outside for him, says he never re-emerged.
“My understanding is he entered and he got out after a few minutes or one hour. I’m not sure,” the prince told Bloomberg in an interview published on Friday.
“The premises are sovereign territory, but we will allow them to enter and search and do whatever they want to do.
“We have nothing to hide.”
The Washington Post published in Friday’s newspaper a blank space where Mr Khashoggi’s column should have been.
Turan Kişlakçı, a friend who heads the Arab Turkish Media Association, said Mr Khashoggi received assurances from Saudi officials before his visit that he could enter safely.
We are holding a spot for Jamal Khashoggi in Friday’s newspaper https://t.co/gBro1ilFZC pic.twitter.com/eCLKqJYHwT
— Washington Post Opinions (@PostOpinions) October 5, 2018
Members of the association have been gathered outside the consulate demanding answers.
Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Ankara believed 59-year-old Mr Khashoggi was still inside the consulate. “We will continue following the matter closely. There is an international law, Turkish law and humanitarian aspect in this issue,” he said.
Prince Mohammed also suggested Mr Khashoggi was still in Turkey. “If he’s in Saudi Arabia, I would know that,” he said.
If Saudi Arabia had detained Mr Khashoggi without acknowledging it, his detention would constitute an enforced disappearance, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said. It called on Turkey to deepen its investigation into the case.
"The burden of proof is on Saudi Arabia to produce evidence for its claim that Khashoggi left the consulate alone, and that Saudi agents have not detained him," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director.
Rights groups have said the incident "sends a petrifying signal" to the kingdom’s critics and dissidents.
The episode has drawn an ever-intensifying spotlight on the crown prince and his promises to reform one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies.
The 33-year-old heir to the Saudi throne used the interview with Bloomberg to defend actions that have sullied his reputation abroad.
“I didn’t call myself a reformer of Saudi Arabia,” he said. “I am the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and I am trying to do the best that I can do through my position.”
He addressed the arrest of women’s rights activists in the country, accusing them of espionage.
“They have connections with agencies of other countries,” he said, naming Iran and Qatar. “They have a network, connection with government people, leaking information for the sake these other governments.”
The activists, many of whom veteran campaigners who had been calling for women’s right to drive, have not been formally charged and have little contact with family since they were arrested in May.
He also dismissed remarks by Donald Trump in which the US president said he had warned the king he would not last in power "for two weeks" without US military backing and demanded he pay up.
“We believe that all the armaments we have from the United States of America are paid for, it’s not free armament," he said. "So ever since the relationship started between Saudi Arabia and the United States of America, we’ve bought everything with money."
He added: "I love working with him. You know, you have to accept that any friend will say good things and bad things,” he went on.
“If you look at the picture overall, you have 99 percent of good things and one bad issue.”