The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, perhaps the most prominent Saudi journalist and a contributor to the Washington Post, has shaken the world. Khashoggi, who had been blacklisted in Saudi Arabia since December 2016 for his criticism of Donald Trump, had long been an insider in Saudi royal circles, despite his reformist views. He entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2nd to obtain a document, which he required in order to get married. Days later, he has still not been seen or heard from, though the Saudi government insists he left on October 3rd. I will spare the details, but reports suggest a gruesome affair befitting a horror film. Turkish police believe the Saudi government to be responsible — indeed it’s hard to imagine how (or why) others would infiltrate the Saudi consulate to conduct a murder.
President Erdogan called the Saudi government’s bluff and asked them to release the CCTV footage of Khashoggi’s departure, which of course does not exist. Indeed, it has come out that Saudi Arabia sent several special forces officers and forensics experts to Istanbul, just in time, suggesting that they were there to commit the murder and leave without a trace.
The brutal treatment of Khashoggi does not exist in a vacuum. The current regime has been cracking down on dissenters right and left, initially through means like blacklisting and house arrest. The pattern was disturbing, but seemed to be predictable; with this drastic escalation, it is hard to predict what’s coming next. Most targets of the regime do not have the luck to write Washington Post columns. We should bear in mind that for every Khashoggi, there are undoubtedly many more victims who are not on our radar.
Last month, it came out that Shaykh Salman al-Awdah, a prominent Saudi religious scholar who has advocated political reform in the Kingdom, is facing execution because he refused to send out a tweet that the government ordered him to last year. The tweet would have endorsed Saudi Arabia’s blockade of its neighbor, Qatar; instead, Shaykh Salman tweeted a prayer calling for peace and harmony between the two countries. Peace has been a consistent stance for al-Awdah, who famously made an internationally broadcast condemnation of Osama bin Laden in the 2000s, addressing him directly.
Initially, he had been sentenced to prison for his refusal to tweet, (and his brother Khaled was imprisoned for tweeting opposition to the sentence). The rest of the al-Awdah family has had travel bans imposed on them, without any legal grounds.
Saudi prosecutors have called for the death penalty for Shaykh Salman, who has been held in solitary confinement for the past year. Per his son Abdullah al-Awdah, who is a fellow at Georgetown, the trial will be held in secret, without lawyers or clear charges. This was a significant turning-point. The imprisonment of internal critics (and dissenters in the royal family) was bad enough, but that it had moved to executions is abominable. With the assassination of Khashoggi, it has gone even further. It appears that the government is no longer concerned even with the pretense of a show trial– or with keeping enforcement within Saudi borders.
European governments, which have made tweets imprisonable offenses ought to look at who else shares these tendencies. I am wary of slippery-slope arguments, but while I don’t anticipate the rest of the world following the Saudi model, we ought to be vigilant.
The Thomas Friedman ‘centrist’ wing of American politics, which insists on “getting stuff done” as its guiding principle, has hailed the current Saudi regime as a great reformist movement, as have other op-ed contributors at the Times. That it is waging total war against its impoverished neighbor Yemen and that scores of dissenting religious scholars, businessmen, and even royals have been imprisoned are reasonable costs, they argue, given that women are now driving in Saudi Arabia, Victoria’s Secret is opening, and the Crown Prince supports Israel. This, we are told is the Arab Spring, coming to Saudi Arabia, “at last”. They have seen fit to serve as the Crown Prince’s useful idiots, their idolatry echoing those Americans of the early 20th century who marveled at the Soviet Union’s industrialization and “planning”.
Thomas Friedman, a friend of Khashoggi’s, took to the Times to (sort of) call for an investigation… (while burning him as a source on Saudi affairs). Perhaps the killing of a friend will be his Whittaker Chambers moment with regard to the particularly dark turn in Saudi politics. Friedman has the ears of many in Washington, so I certainly hope so. Jared Kushner, who is in charge of the U.S.’s Middle East policy, is very close to the Saudi regime, which has led to the President backing Saudi Arabia against other U.S. allies, to the horror of Senator Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I hope that the sheer violence of this recent disappearance will contribute to a shift in policy.
As Americans, with the privilege of a robust free press and the First Amendment, we like to complain about how free speech no longer exists and that journalism is no longer possible due to the government. But it is clear that we are under no such threat in the U.S., despite the noises made by the Trump and Obama administrations about journalists; that we recognize this is what economists call “revealed preference”.
The situation in other countries, many of which are U.S. allies, is much more concerning. Khashoggi is not alone. In the Post today, Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif confirms that several other Saudi writers (some of whom had no political message at all) have been forcibly repatriated to Saudi Arabia as part of a “state-run plan to silence criticism of the Saudi leadership.”
The tepid statements issued by the White House about Khashoggi do not inspire much confidence that it is being taken seriously. They essentially request a statement from the Saudi government, rather than a real investigation, such as the one Turkey is actually attempting. Kushner has put Saudi ahead of all other U.S. allies in the region, and so far it seems like the reports of Khashoggi’s killing have not changed this. Let us hope that other voices bring pressure to bear on the administration to change course and stand up against this evil.