Late last week, the Washington Post ran blank space where a column by dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote for its Global Opinions section, should have appeared. The wordless column was a powerful expression of concern about Khashoggi’s fate. A leading critic of the Saudi kingdom’s leadership, Khashoggi had not been seen since entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last Tuesday to secure documentation for his forthcoming marriage. According to his fiancée, who accompanied him and waited outside, he entered the building at 1:30 pm and failed to emerge when the office closed at 5 pm. By the time the Post published the blank column, there was still hope that he was being held inside the consulate and would be released.
That hope diminished over the weekend, when several news outlets reported the possibility that Khashoggi had been killed and dismembered at the consulate so that his body could be smuggled out of the building without detection. The media also reported that a 15-member Saudi hit team had arrived in Turkey and entered the consulate shortly before Khashoggi’s arrival.
Saudi Arabia has denied involvement. Claiming that Khashoggi left the embassy, Saudi officials expressed concern about his mysterious disappearance. “We hear the rumors about what happened,” Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman, known in the West as MBS, told Bloomberg News in an extensive interview. “He’s a Saudi citizen and we are very keen to know what happened to him. And we will continue our dialogue with the Turkish government to see what happened to Jamal there.”
There is, unfortunately, no Arabic word for chutzpah, since such an egregious act would undoubtedly have required the brash 33-year-old prince’s authorization or acquiescence.
Having known (and debated) Jamal for many years, I continue to hope, against logic, that he remains alive. But if Khashoggi has joined the long list of Saudi critics whom the notoriously thin-skinned crown prince has punished, the time has come to decry his increasingly brutal, reckless behavior.
Khashoggi’s last column for the Post, in which he attacked MBS’s signature foreign policy initiative—the disastrous war in Yemen—may have been the proverbial straw for the crown prince. As a newly minted 29-year-old defense minister in 2015, MBS relentlessly promoted Riyadh’s intervention in the Yemeni civil war against the Iranian-backed Zaydi Shiite Houthis. Khashoggi condemned that war, arguing that the kingdom was becoming morally indistinguishable from Syrian president Bashar Assad and the Iranians in helping continue the civil wars in Syria and Yemen.
A decision to kill such a prominent dissident would add to MBS’s growing list of unforced errors—including leading the effort to boycott Qatar, the arrest of Saudi women who led the campaign to let women drive (a long-overdue reform for which MBS claimed credit), and the temporary kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad al-Hariri, whom MBS saw as too close to Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, now Lebanon’s leading political force.
Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst who advised four presidents and is now at the Brookings Institution, called Khashoggi’s disappearance consistent with the pattern of “crude intimidation” and the growing silencing of dissent in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has a long history of abducting critics from abroad, and MBS has doubled down on such intimidation. Last year, his police conducted raids and supervised the mass detention and torture of wealthy Saudis in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh. Given America’s silence about the extortion of detainees’ funds to secure their release, MBS must be confident that the Trump administration “will do nothing about human rights violations in Saudi Arabia,” Riedel wrote, adding, “He is probably right.” So far, other than expressing “concern” about Khashoggi’s fate, the Trump administration has said little. “There are some pretty bad stories going around,” the president said Monday. “I do not like it.” That’s not good enough.
On his first foreign trip, President Trump went to Riyadh, in an effort to improve relations with the kingdom. Among other things, as MBS told Bloomberg, the visit prompted Riyadh to commit to buying more than 60 percent of its weapons in the next decade from Washington. “I love working with him,” MBS said about his relationship with Trump and their joint battle against the Islamic State and other Islamist militants who endorse terrorism. The prince also confirmed reports that Trump had asked Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members to pump enough oil to ensure that the reduction of Iran’s oil exports of 700,000 barrels a day would not lead to a surge in oil prices. Such gestures forge stronger economic and strategic ties.
But even hard-nosed pragmatists, like Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to Republican and Democratic administrations, have urged the White House to denounce the prince should it be established that Khashoggi has, in fact, been murdered. “In failing to call MBS out on just about anything, particularly repression at home,” Miller tweeted, the administration “has emboldened him and given him [the] sense he can do anything.”
Silence will not serve the long-term interests of either the prince or the Saudi kingdom. Khashoggi is just the kind of Saudi from whom MBS needs to hear. A former Muslim Brotherhood member who befriended Osama bin Laden but later condemned his violence, Khashoggi became a leading proponent for Arab reform—some of the same reforms, in fact, that MBS has spearheaded as part of his Vision 2030 campaign for the kingdom. But MBS’s ostensible reforms will come to naught, unless he learns to be more tolerant of dissent and creates institutions that abide by the rule of law rather than respond to tribal whim and princely pique.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently noted that his friend Khashoggi had endured a crisis of conscience last year when MBS was jailing and torturing his Saudi friends. “I said nothing. I didn’t want to lose my job or my freedom. I worried about my family. I have made a different choice now,” Khashoggi wrote at the time, explaining his decision to flee the kingdom for America. “We Saudis deserve better.” So does he.
(Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images