Analysis | Five years after Khashoggi murder, lots of geopolitics, little justice

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This week marks a bleak anniversary. Half a decade ago, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor who had been living in United States, entered his nation’s consulate in Istanbul and was never seen again. Investigations found that Khashoggi had been abducted and brutally murdered by a Saudi hit squad. U.S. intelligence officials believed the order to “capture or kill” Khashoggi came from the very top in Riyadh — that is, from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In the fall of 2018, the Khashoggi affair triggered an uproar in Washington and elsewhere. Governments around the world condemned the killing of a prominent Saudi writer, who had championed political restructuring in his homeland. Unusual bipartisan ire in Congress saw weapons sales to Saudi briefly suspended. Prince Mohammed, who had embarked on a glitzy world tour earlier that year, was compelled to slink off the international stage.

But five years later, there’s little closure for Khashoggi and his bereaved relatives and friends. For Riyadh, the case is closed — a Saudi criminal court handed out prison terms to eight people, while absolving a number of principal figures that U.S. officials believe played important roles in the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death. To this day, there’s little clarity on what happened to Khashoggi’s body; his loved ones have been unable to conduct a proper burial.

Khashoggi’s supporters bemoan how the world failed to hold Saudi Arabia accountable. From the outset, the Trump administration worked to shield the crown prince from further scrutiny. But President Biden also decided to effectively drop the matter in his dealings with Riyadh, even after campaigning on the need to make the Saudi royal a global “pariah.” Instead, Prince Mohammed is once more a fixture in Western capitals and global forums. Last year, he received Biden on his home soil with an awkward fist bump; now, his kingdom is discussing terms with the United States over a lucrative potential security alliance.

CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination

For Washington’s policymakers, Riyadh’s oil wealth and strategic significance in the Middle East trumps other considerations. But to rights groups, that’s an unacceptable status quo. “On the fifth anniversary of [Khashoggi’s] murder, governments and institutions should reject business as usual with bin Salman’s government — otherwise, targeting writers could become the new normal,” warned PEN America, a free speech group, in a statement.

Agnès Callamard, head of Amnesty International and a former U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings who investigated Khashoggi’s death, decried the geopolitics — the business as usual — that has denied genuine justice to Khashoggi and his family. “It is appalling that instead of pushing for justice for his murder, the international community continues to roll out the red carpet for Saudi Arabia’s leaders at any opportunity, placing diplomatic and economic interests before human rights,” she said.

Amid political panic over inflation and rising prices at the pump, Biden officials embarked on multiple missions to Riyadh in a bid to smooth over relations and convince the Saudis to help lower global prices. Instead, ahead of the United States’ midterm elections, the Saudis slashed production in a move that was widely seen as a slap in the Biden administration’s face.

“Prince Mohammed not only humiliated Biden but showed that he is in a stronger position today — and has more international suitors looking to curry his favor and win Saudi investments — than five years ago when he ordered Khashoggi’s assassination,” wrote Mohamad Bazzi in a Guardian op-ed. “Thanks to Trump and Biden, the crown prince evaded accountability for murder and emerged more defiant than ever.”

Was Biden’s Middle East trip worth it?

On Oct. 2, 2018, Saudi agents killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. What has been done in the aftermath? (Video: Joyce Lee, Thomas LeGro, Dalton Bennett, John Parks/The Washington Post)

U.S. officials make little apology for not prioritizing Khashoggi’s death when dealing with the Saudis. “The question of values and human rights is at the table when we are having discussions about our national security interest in this region,” Brett McGurk, a top White House official focused on the Middle East, said at a Washington think tank event last year. “That alone is unique, and that is how American diplomats wear our values on our sleeve. Does that mean that human rights and values overtake every other issue? No, but it’s a part of the conversation.”

The conversations most in Washington care about now are rather different: They wonder how MBS, as the crown prince is known, views burgeoning ties with China. They seek to influence a rapprochement with Israel. They hope to encourage Saudi engagement in the West, as MBS pushes for dramatic megaprojects at home and uses the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund to invest in major tech companies and cultural and sporting assets abroad.

“With expanded Saudi acquisitions of Western businesses, cultural and sporting institutions, and even hundreds of former political and military officials, the message MBS is sending is that he can buy our democracies too,” wrote Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, an organization Khashoggi helped found.

In his column remembering Khashoggi, his longtime friend and associate, The Post’s David Ignatius noted that the Saudi dissident would marvel at the undeniable liberalizing reforms achieved by MBS. “Returning to the kingdom, Khashoggi would witness changes he had hoped for, while he was alive, but doubted would happen,” Ignatius wrote. “Women not only can drive, a freedom they were granted in 2018, a few months before his murder, but they are now largely free of the tutelage of men. They can mix freely with men at concerts and sporting events. Many are unveiled. Saudi women today are ambassadors, business executives, even astronauts.”

But, Ignatius added, Khashoggi would still be appalled by the “gratuitous cruelty” of MBS’s rule, which has seen activists and critics detained and doled out harsh punishments for something as ephemeral as a tweet. “The lack of accountability has just generated worse scenarios for Saudis,” Hala Al-Dosari, a human rights activist living in exile in the United States, told Vox’s Jonathan Guyer. “We are seeing life sentences and death sentences for people expressing opinions.”

The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi

But, as has long been the case, there is little cost for Riyadh in functioning this way. The United States and other Western powers have no interest in compromising ties with the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s regional neighbors are wholly focused on the tangled geopolitics and transactional dealings that make up the complex web of relations in the Middle East. Five years after his death, Khashoggi’s case was little discussed in the major media channels of the Arab world, nor even in Turkey, where local media once investigated and publicized his assassination.

MBS, meanwhile, is unrepentant. In a stunning set of conversations with the Atlantic last year, he cast himself as a victim of an international vendetta and scoffed both at the bumbling nature of the mission that led to Khashoggi’s abduction and likely grisly dismemberment, as well as the fact that the writer was even a target. “If that’s the way we did things” — that is, murdering authors of critical op-eds — “Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list,” MBS told the magazine. “If you’re going to go for another operation like that, for another person, it’s got to be professional and it’s got to be one of the top 1,000.”

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