Ten days ago, a man named Jamal Khashoggi went to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. He never came back. Here’s what happened – we think.
Khashoggi is himself Saudi Arabian, and was a government insider for a long time. As a journalist, he served as editor-in-chief of a series of Arab news services, and is even rumored to have served in the Saudi intelligence service. He is a progressive, but by no means an enemy of the state, pointing towards reform as opposed to revolution.
In June of 2017, the king of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, elevated his son, Mohammed bin Salman, to Crown Prince and heir apparent to the kingdom, prepping him to take over as king in the future. His elevation was met with optimism, as the young 33-year-old prince promised reform and liberalization, like letting women drive and restricting the authority of the religious police. But, this progress seems mostly to have been theatrics, as he used the cover of reform to enact an anti-corruption campaign in 2017 that succeeded in allowing MbS to consolidate his power, followed by arresting women’s rights activists in 2018.
In the meantime, Jamal Khashoggi moved to the US in a form of self-exile after the government allegedly banned him from publishing or appearing on TV for the crime of criticizing Donald Trump in 2016. (Try and wrap your head around that.) He joined the Washington Post’s editorial staff, and continued to criticize the Saudi government for its diplomatic dispute with Qatar and Canada, and for its crackdown on media and dissent. He expressed to a friend that he felt unsafe returning to Saudi Arabia, despite offers from the government to run a think tank back in Riyadh.
Here are the facts: 10 days ago, on October 2nd, he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul with his fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, in order to get some papers he needed so they could get married. He walked in around 1:14pm, asking Cengiz to wait outside. She waited until 1am, but he did not return.
Turkish officials have slowly released details, including video showing Khashoggi entering the consulate. Here’s the story they tell: 9 Saudi officials who arrived that morning on a private jet hid in wait for him at the consulate, murdered him, cut up his body with a bone saw, and then smuggled him out in pieces. It has been suggested that they never meant to extralegally murder him, just extralegally arrest him. Easy mistake to make.
So what’s the damage? What’s the reaction to this brazen act of extrajudicial violence dealt on another nation’s soil?
So far, not much, at least geopolitically. Trump noted that the Saudis spend about $110 billion on US weapons from a deal he made when he visited the kingdom, and what a shame it would be to lose their business, and we aren’t sure he was killed anyway, and I mean he’s not even a US citizen so really who’s to say.
The French have demanded an explanation, and the Turks have slowly leveled their accusations at the Saudis, claiming they have video and audio evidence to make their case, but the Gulf countries, the United Arab Emirates in particular, have jumped to the Saudis’ defense. The Saudis have agreed to allow the Turks to investigate the consulate, but a Turkish official claims they are not cooperating fully.
It seems that the Crown Prince has (so far) correctly estimated that Saudi Arabia is too valuable to the West geopolitically to risk a breakdown over one measly maybe-murdered journalist. The US gets 11% of its oil from Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis hate the Iranians so, yknow, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Especially when they have lots of oil too. And, by the way, it’s long been an open secret that Saudi Arabia had some role in 9/11, beyond the fact that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi. So I wouldn’t hold my breath for the West to all of a sudden start holding them accountable.
But a strange thing is happening: the private sector is sanctioning MbS. The Crown Prince is running a high-level investment summit at the end of the month, and business leaders have begun to pull out, citing concerns over the alleged killing. The CEO of Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi pulled out, despite a $3.5bn investment in Uber by the Saudis. Richard Branson has pulled out of two tourism projects and suspended talks about the Saudis investing in Virgin Galactic. CNN, the New York Times, and Huffington Post have also pulled out. One might not blink at this, but the Saudis have been extremely active in using sovereign wealth funds (basically an endowment for a country) to expand their wealth in order to allow Saudi Arabia to escape its economic dependence on oil. Getting blacklisted by global investors puts a big hole in that plan. If the king thinks his son is being reckless and endangering the future of the kingdom… well, it’s a big family.
So while the nations of the world and their leaders may not be willing to call out a murderer beyond some lip service to the rule of law, business leaders might just be displaying the backbone we need? Your guess is as good as mine. #fpf