On Oct. 2, exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to acquire divorce papers and was never seen again. Although his disappearance remains unsolved, Turkish intelligence believes that a hit squad who had flown in from Saudi Arabia a week before murdered and dismembered Khashoggi (NBC News, “Turkish authorities believe journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed,” 10.06.2018). If Saudi Arabia did assassinate a dissident—a NATO member who resided in the United States—then the United States government needs to seriously reconsider its already deeply troubling relationship with the Saudi Kingdom.
Since his departure from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in September 2017, Jamal Khashoggi had been one of the nation’s most effective critics. His columns for The Washington Post took Saudi Arabia and its brash young Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, to task for punishing dissidents, the slow pace of social reforms and the brutal campaign Saudi Arabia is waging in Yemen with the backing of the United States (The Washington Post, “Read Jamal Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post,” 10.06.2018). He was especially insightful because he had spent many years working for the Saudi government as an editor for official media outlets and as an advisor to the head of intelligence. This extensive insider knowledge, the vast majority of which went unpublished, may explain why Saudi Arabia may have risked international backlash by possibly assassinating him on foreign territory.
But why should the Saudi government expect to face significant consequences for such a heinous act? Formerly led by King Salman but de facto run by his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has been sheltered from consequences so far by the Obama and Trump administrations (Politico, “Obama, in an awkward twist, becomes Saudi Arabia’s defender,” 09.22.2016). Both presidents were hesitant to seriously disturb their relationships with Saudi Arabia because of a shared interest in containing Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, as well as Saudi Arabia’s billions of dollars in arms purchases from the United States. Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-inlaw and Middle East peace envoy, views Mohammed bin Salman as an indispensable part of a vague yet grand plan to create peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Sunni Arab states (Haaretz, “How Kushner Played Matchmaker Between Israel and Saudi Arabia, According to Woodward,” 09.13.2018).
This has sheltered Mohammed bin Salman as he has led Saudi Arabia down a path of piecemeal reform coupled with brutal crackdowns on internal and external disagreement. For example, under his leadership, the Saudi state finally allowed Saudi women to drive but continues to arrest Saudi feminist activists, many of whom were involved in the grassroots campaign for driving rights. When the Canadian Foreign Ministry tweeted a criticism of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of activists, the Saudi government responded by withdrawing thousands of Saudi students from Canadian universities, canceling flights to Canada and freezing future investment (Business Insider, “The full timeline of Canada and Saudi Arabia’s feud over jailed human rights activists,” 08.24.2018).
All of this pales before the tragedy of Yemen. With the arms and active cooperation of the United States, Saudi Arabia has led a long and bloody war in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Saudi and Emirati forces have routinely carried out airstrikes on civilian targets. As a result, millions of Yemeni people are struggling against starvation and disease, and at least 16,700 casulaties have been reported due to the conflict (The New York Times, “War Crimes Report on Yemen Accuses Saudi Arabia and U.A.E.,” 08.24.2018).
In one of his most eloquent and impassioned columns, Khashoggi called for the Saudi Crown Prince to restore his country’s honor by ending the war in Yemen, stating, “[F]urther continuation of the war in Yemen will validate voices saying that Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Russians and Iranians are doing in Syria” (The Washington Post, “Trump chooses more of the same in Yemen’s war,” 09.13.2018).
Without freedom of the press, the maintenance and spread of democracy becomes an impossibility. The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi is the latest in a long list of reasons why the United States’ current relationship with Saudi Arabia is detrimental to the long-term interests of global democracy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated on Oct. 8, “We call on the government of Saudi Arabia to support a thorough investigation of Khashoggi’s disappearance and to be transparent about the results of that investigation” (Time, Mike Pompeo Is Calling on Saudi Arabia to Investigate the Disappearance of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” 10.09.2018) On the same day, Trump told reporters as he returned to Washington from Florida, “I am concerned about it. I don’t like hearing about it. And hopefully that will sort itself out. Right now, nobody knows anything about it” (Time, “President Trump Says He’s ‘Concerned’ About Missing Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” 10.07.2018).
These statements are too tepid. It’s well past time for the United States to seriously reconsider its alliance with Saudi Arabia.