Getting away with murder?

Getting away with murder?
Comment: The disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi puts to bed the myth - beloved of the west - of reform in Saudi Arabia, writes Mat Nashed.
4 min read
10 Oct, 2018
Mohammed bin Salman visits Trump in the Oval Office [Getty]
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has allegedly gotten away with murder.

On 2 October, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain a document that he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée the next day.

Khashoggi, a Saudi exile, was allegedly murdered in the consulate by assassins who flew in to Istanbul the night before. His corpse was then dismembered and smuggled out, two Turkish sources familiar with the investigation told Reuters.

Early Wednesday morning, the Daily Sabah, a pro-state Turkish newspaper published a list of the names and faces of the purported hit-squad.

While nothing can be proven so far, the Khashoggi affair sets a dangerous precedent for all Saudis who dare to criticise MbS from inside the Kingdom or abroad.

It's important to note that Khashoggi wasn't even a dissident, but a measured critic. He fully endorsed MbS' Vision 2030, but warned that the crown prince was replacing ultra-conservative religious forces with a new radicalism that, "while seemingly more liberal and appealing to the West, is just as intolerant of dissent."

Khashoggi was right, but his disappearance and possible death proves that the Kingdom may be even more repressive than even he himself imagined.

A Saudi spectacle

The young and ambitious MbS has championed himself as a reformer since ascending to power in June 2017. Columnists for prominent American newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times swallowed the bait whole. 

Khashoggi wasn't even a dissident, but a measured critic

Thomas Friedman, writing in the NYT even hailed MbS for instigating a top-down "Arab Spring" - a remark that is grossly insulting to all those who lost their lives demonstrating against oppressive Arab regimes in 2011.

Two months before Friedman published his article, Khashoggi went into self-imposed exile to the United States. By then, dozens of Saudi princes had been detained in the Ritz Carlton hotel on corruption charges. Many were eventually released after handing over billions of dollars' worth of assets.

Despite the so-called crackdown on corruption, Khashoggi feared that MbS was merely confiscating assets to secure his grip on power. The purchase of a $500 million yacht and $300 mansion little to help the crown prince convince his critics otherwise.

"Saudis deserve more than the spectacle of royals and officials interred at the Ritz Carlton. We also should have the right to speak about these important and impactful changes," Khashoggi wrote in The Post.

MbS later ordered the arrest of dozens of personalities with large social media followings, including moderate sheikhs and human rights activists. As Khashoggi noted, MbS was claiming to purge the kingdom of extremists by jailing reformers.

Equally disturbing, MbS empowered extremist sheikhs in the state-backed clergy simply because they expressed their unwavering loyalty to him.

The arrest of dozens of women rights activist - just weeks after permitting women to drive - sent another unequivocal message that any reforms in the Kingdom are top-down PR decisions, and not a concession to years of activism.

Khashoggi responded with a message of his own. The jailed women activists, he wrote, should be released to celebrate the fruits of their "tears and toil". Any genuine reform, he stressed, wouldn't be possible unless Saudis were free to discuss and critique MbS' ambitious plans.

Total impunity

The disappearance of Khashoggi evokes harrowing memories of when Libya's former dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, would send his assassins to kill Libyan dissidents abroad. But while Libya was treated as a pariah state until 2004, Saudi Arabia remains a chief ally of the United States, and important trade partner for Britain. 

Like a friendship from hell, President Donald Trump and members of his administration are particularly close to MbS, having effectively given the crown prince the green light to blockade Qatar, wage war in Yemen, kidnap the Lebanese prime minister and instigate a diplomatic crisis with Canada.

There is no reason to think that Trump - or any other western ally of Saudi Arabia - will suddenly punish MbS for the kidnapping and possible murder of Khashoggi on foreign soil.  

On the contrary, Trump's constant smearing of journalists could even have emboldened MbS to silence Khashoggi, who lives and works in America.

Any reforms in the Kingdom are top-down PR decisions, and not a concession to years of activism

Turkey is nonetheless on the spot. Khashoggi's disappearance continues to generate shock and outrage throughout the country. Yet with Turkey swimming in debt, Erdogan might be hesitant to aggravate his rocky relationship with Trump and MbS.

In addition, the total impunity of the crown prince is further isolating critics inside Saudi Arabia. One Saudi journalist told me that most of his friends have cut off contact with him due to fears that any affiliation could lead to reprisal. Dozens of other activists have abandoned their families and gone into hiding.

For anyone still confused, the disappearance of Khashoggi makes one thing clear: MbS isn't a reformer, but a brutal despot ruling the kingdom of silence.

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile. 

Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.