The Khashoggi Affair
Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul on the afternoon of 2 October and did not come out. The local police think that Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist writing regularly for the Washington Post, was killed inside the consulate building and his body smuggled out by car.
The Turkish authorities are not to be trusted in such matters, but it is overwhelmingly likely that Khashoggi has been either killed or abducted by the Saudi state. He left Saudi Arabia because he feared arrest. A detachment of Saudi state security officers arrived in Turkey immediately before his disappearance and left shortly afterwards. The consulate’s cameras were either switched off or the tapes removed. He may have been killed in the consulate, or drugged and flown to Riyadh, to be either executed or held incommunicado. The Saudi government has offered only flimsy denials.
Khashoggi was always an equable critic of the Saudi monarchy – not a dissident and certainly not a member of any opposition. He believed in and supported the Saudi political system. That he had once been close enough to the ruling family to have served as a royal adviser may have come to count against him. Perhaps the problem was the Washington Post’s publishing his commentary in Arabic as well as English. Or it may have been simply that he was openly critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
The affair has produced a degree of shock that, while understandable, is unfounded given the kingdom’s record. This wouldn’t be the first time the Saudi government has abducted Saudi citizens abroad. Turki bin Bandar was almost certainly drugged and kidnapped in Morocco in 2015; Saud bin Said Al Nasr in Milan at around the same time; and Sultan bin Turki Abdulaziz in Paris in 2016. They were wayward princes, admittedly, rather than famous journalists, but the method has precedent.
The Khashoggi story may, however, help to expose the foolishness of depicting MBS as a reformer, a narrative favoured by Western governments and promoted by several established Middle East commentators. For too long, the minor social reforms of an autocrat have been elevated beyond all reason. Marketed as an enlightened liberal prince, MBS presides over a regime that regularly executes dissidents at home and decapitates people in public squares for witchcraft. Under MBS, Saudi Arabia remains a hereditary dictatorship kept in place by US power and British weaponry, in which the only check on repression is inefficiency.
US senators, among others, have suggested that the Khashoggi affair may lead to some change in Western treatment of Saudi Arabia. This is delusional. The defence of the Saudi monarchy is the heart of US policy in the Middle East, and it entails an ugliness that far exceeds the murder or abduction of a journalist. In Yemen, the US and Britain are complicit with Saudi Arabian crimes on an incomparable scale.