The Grim Truth about Saudi Arabia

Jamal Khashoggi (April Brady/Project on Middle East Democracy)
A mature society would be able to handle a moderate dissident like Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi kingdom apparently could not, and the consequences seem clear.

The sad reality is that Saudi Arabia will remain a U.S. ally regardless of how deep and disturbing Riyadh’s involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is ultimately revealed to be. As Matthew Continetti recently emphasized, there are certain geopolitical realities — in particular the cold war with Iran — that make the Saudi–American alliance a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, no matter how appalling the Saudi human-rights record gets.

What the alleged murder of Khashoggi does do, however, is rapidly eliminate any possibility that the Saudi alliance could be seen as something defensible and positive on its own terms, rather than a necessary evil.

Jamal Khashoggi wrote for the same Global Opinions section of the Washington Post I do — indeed, we were both recruited around the same time. The point of Global Opinions is to offer informed local perspectives on foreign politics for a worldwide audience, and Khashoggi was a brilliant choice for the role of Saudi analyst. Like many great political commentators, he was a man with one foot in the establishment and one outside it. Over the course of a lengthy career, he’d served stints as an advisor to overseas diplomats and as a journalist. He was repeatedly fired from the latter role for expressing heretical opinions that angered the Saudi government. “Perhaps it seems odd to be fired by the government and then serve it abroad,” he wrote in his inaugural Post column, “Yet that is truly the Saudi paradox.”

After decades of trying to navigate that paradox, the 60-year-old Khashoggi concluded last fall that it he could no longer stand it and moved to America, in hopes that living there would allow him to speak more frankly about the country he knew and loved. Like many dissident expats, Khashoggi always considered himself animated by a sense of patriotic obligation — “I can say that what comes through in conversations with him is how honestly he loves Saudi Arabia and its people and feels that it is his duty to write what he sees to be the truth about the kingdom’s past, present and future,” wrote his editor and mine, Karen Attiah, when he first went missing.

At a time when the dominant media narrative held the ascension of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the Saudi leadership as the encouraging rise of a promising young reformist, Khashoggi was a persistent contrarian, portraying the prince as an erratic, insecure child monarch, too thin-skinned, petty, and power-drunk to even follow his own PR script properly. Now, sadly, it appears he may have been proven right in the most monstrous fashion imaginable: If the considerable accumulation of circumstantial evidence means what it seems to mean, he was brutally tortured, murdered, and possibly dismembered during a routine visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 4.

Everything about the episode is embarrassingly clumsy and darkly farcical. The consulate is a visible public space, and Khashoggi’s visit to it was witnessed by his Turkish fiancée, who waited outside as he went to file some paperwork in preparation for their marriage. There is security footage of him entering the building but none of him leaving, and the Turkish press has reported on 15 Saudi officials who made a highly coincidental one-day visit to the diplomatic district the day Khashoggi vanished. The delegation (which apparently included a mortician) is said to have been captured on film entering the building sometime after Khashoggi. The Saudis have not bothered to contrive an explanation for any of this, other than to indignantly assert their own innocence.

To date, Saudi Arabia has unconvincingly sought to argue that the whole thing may just be a big misunderstanding. The Saudis argue that the Turks, currently a Saudi rival in the great-power politics of the Middle East, have a vested interest in portraying Khashoggi’s disappearance in the most sensationalistic light possible, in order to drive a wedge between Riyadh and the West. Yet the fact that Khashoggi was last seen on the physical property of the Saudi government — legal Saudi soil, in fact — indisputably puts the onus on the Saudis to explain themselves, and makes their claims of obliviousness an insult to the world’s collective intelligence.

The phrase “normal country” has been thrown around in a lot of contexts, but few nations have ever appeared as far from the title as Saudi Arabia. To much of the west, the fundamentalist Sunni Kingdom has always seemed a grotesque place, and a deeply problematic ally. Crown Prince Mohammed emerged as an essential figure simply because the West’s post-9/11 moral rejection of Saudi Arabia had become severe enough to necessitate a political answer. Yet as Khashoggi himself often argued, the prince was still ultimately a product of the country’s archaic system of absolute monarchy, and thus prone to the same sort of vain and ill-informed decision-making one-man rule cannot help but produce.

A writer like Khashoggi, whose agenda was never subversive or radical, is the sort of citizen a mature society is supposed to be able to handle. Saudi Arabia apparently could not, and the consequences look clear enough: The promise of any genuine western goodwill toward the nation has been extinguished alongside an innocent man’s inspiring life.


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