Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi moved to the United States after he was pressured to stop criticizing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s new authoritarian order. He explained his decision a year ago in the Washington Post : “I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot.”
Khashoggi, who once advised members of the royal family, appears to have paid the ultimate price for living his principles. On Tuesday he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, seeking to complete paperwork to facilitate his remarriage. He never exited. Alive, anyway.
The Saudi authorities insist that he had left and they also are looking for him. It first appeared likely that he had been kidnapped, a common tactic used by Riyadh against dissident princes and other critics. The Turkish police noted the departure of several diplomatic vehicles from the building, in which he could have been taken, drugged and/or bound. However, Ankara now concludes that Khashoggi was murdered by a special hit squad brought in for that purpose.
Stated an anonymous official: “We believe that the murder was premeditated and the body was subsequently moved out of the consulate.” If true, Riyadh has dramatically escalated the war on its critics, many of whom, as Khashoggi related, currently languish in prison. However, having denied that the journalist is either at the consulate or in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the regime could not easily later release him from prison. And death certainly ends his criticism.
The KSA never has run on liberal principles. However, there long was some space for measured criticism, with liberals allowed to advocate reform. Khashoggi called it “a gentleman’s agreement” which resulted in a balance between what could and could not be published. However, that tolerance has disappeared under the reign of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS, who with his father has turned a brotherly monarchy into a family dictatorship.
Unfortunately, the crown prince’s long overdue social liberalization has been more than counterbalanced by imposition of political tyranny. Explained Khashoggi: “We started seeing more direct pressure on journalists to only publish pro-government stories. Some people were asked to sign loyalty pledges. Some people were banned from writing or had their columns taken down. Things got worse for the activists, too, or people with critical opinions. The government was sending a message that if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
On his arrival in the United States Khashoggi wrote of “the fear, intimidation, arrest and public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to speak their minds.” He noted “how breathtakingly fast you can fall out of favor with Saudi Arabia.” Repression is now “business as usual in my country.”
For instance, women activists long risked their freedom to push the government to lift the ban on women driving. In June MbS did so with great fanfare—while silencing and even arresting many of those who had advocated the change. Human Rights Watch referred to “an unrelenting crackdown on the women’s rights movement.” One unnamed activist admitted that “We used to think if we presented ourselves as allies to the government, wanting to work with them, we would be safe. But that changed after the rise of Mohammed bin Salman.”
The repressive wave washed over numerous pundits and clerics. Some were arrested not because they criticized Riyadh, but because they did not vigorously attack Qatar, which MbS sought to turn into a puppet state. In May Human Rights Watch reported that “Saudi Arabia is detaining thousands of people for more than six months, in some cases for over a decade, without referring them to courts for criminal proceedings.” The number of those so detained increased tenfold since May 2014.
Last year the crown prince jailed a couple hundred of the kingdom’s wealthy elite in a brutal financial shakedown, with the added benefit of discouraging opposition to his family’s coup against the old system. Most were freed after turning over a substantial amount of their wealth to MbS, though many remain barred from foreign travel. But even before that power development occurred Khashoggi being overseas offered no security from Riyadh’s reach. The BBC reported on three princes, Sultan bin Turki bin Abdulaziz, Prince Turki bin Bandar, and Prince Saud bin Saif al-Nasr, who had gone into exile and advocated reform, only to be kidnapped and returned to the KSA, where they were jailed (or possibly murdered). This practice has continued, with regime critics recently abducted in Kuwait and Lebanon.
Even the State Department had trouble finding anything nice to say about the repressive royals in its latest human rights report. Explained State: “The most significant human rights issues included unlawful killings, including execution for other than the most serious offenses and without requisite due process; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of lawyers, human rights activists, and anti-government reformists; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, including on the internet, and criminalization of libel; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion; citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free and fair elections.”