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 Khashoggi called it “a gentleman’s agreement” which resulted in a balance between what could and could not be published.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.”
Despite rumors of impending religious liberalization, so far the KSA sits atop the world, alongside North Korea, as a leading persecutor. Even Iran allows churches, temples, and synagogues to operate. But not Saudi Arabia. Even foreigners who gather in homes to worship face arrest. Years of financing fundamentalist Wahhabism around the globe have encouraged intolerance, hostility, and hatred of non-Muslims. Shiites also are a persecuted minority in the KSA, even facing death for protesting their discriminatory status.
With such a dreadful record, the Saudi royals have become a bit, shall we say, touchy about criticism of their behavior. After the Canadian government urged release of women’s rights activists, Riyadh expelled Canada’s ambassador, dropped pending contracts in Canada, and withdrew students from Canadian universities. The KSA also demanded an apology for having pointed out its crimes. The KSA similarly targeted Sweden and Germany for equally modest comments on the repressive royals.
That MbS does not employ violence against his international critics reflects lack of reach, not ambition. His foreign policy is both brutal and reckless. For instance, last year the Saudi government essentially kidnapped visiting Lebanese prime minister Saad Harari, a Sunni long allied with Riyadh, and forced him to announce his resignation. The resulting international furor caused his release, after which he returned to his duties.
Angry with Qatar for providing sanctuary for critics of the KSA, Riyadh (along with the United Arab Emirates) launched a campaign to isolate Doha. The terror-friendly Saudi government, home to fifteen of nineteen 9/11 hijackers and financier of Islamic fundamentalism worldwide, present its action as an attack on terrorism. However, MbS was most irritated with Qatar-funded Al Jazeera, which criticized the Saudi royals. The KSA planned to invade its small neighbor, backing away only under U.S. pressure and Turkish intervention.
In 2015 the Saudis launched an aggressive war against Yemen to restore to power the pliable Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had been ousted in the latest iteration of decades of civil war and internal strife. An expected two-week war stretched into more than three years, with thousands of Yemeni civilians killed by Saudi airstrikes. The Saudis (and Emiratis) underwrote Islamic radicals in the fight against Houthi rebels. Iran took advantage of Riyadh’s bloody overreach to support the opposition, bleeding the KSA.
Saudi Arabia also backed the repressive el-Sisi government and Khalifa monarchy in Egypt and Bahrain, respectively. Riyadh even sent troops to help the latter suppress the Shia majority, which sought democratic freedoms from their Sunni overlords. Moreover, the KSA funded the most radical insurgents in Syria, largely abandoning the fight against the Islamic State in favor of its ill-fated Yemeni campaign. Riyadh has become the most brutal, destabilizing force in the Persian Gulf.
These policies are undermining MbS’s professed commitment to economic reform. Wealthy Saudis have been running for the exits with their cash and foreigners have stopped investing. Last year the KSA received less foreign direct investment than politically and economically unstable Jordan and oil-poor Oman. Instead of forging a reputation as a decisive leader, the crown prince increasingly looks like “an impulsive authoritarian, prone to temper tantrums and flights of irrational decisionmaking,” in the words of John Hannah, senior counselor for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
However, President Donald Trump appeared to fall under MbS’s influence after visiting Riyadh last year, where the president received a royal welcome—even awkwardly joining the “sword dance” and peering into the orb, called the “eye of Sauron” by some wits, at the “anti-terrorism” center. The crown prince recently said of Trump: “I love working with him. I really like working with him and we have achieved a lot in the Middle East.”
What is there for the crown prince not to like? The United States has armed him and given him a blank check to run amok in the Mideast. Moreover, the administration’s proposed “Arab NATO” would cement Saudi domination, forcing the three independent Gulf States, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait, into Riyadh’s orbit. And the administration, so vocal about Iran’s human-rights violations, has said nothing about the far more tyrannical regime in Saudi Arabia.