Three years ago this month-- on October 2, 2018 ---Jamal Khashoggi, the sixty-year-old Saudi journalist, was brutally murdered in cold blood in his country’s Consulate in Istanbul. His body was cut into pieces. He was living in exile in Washington DC because he had become a critic of the Saudi government, particularly of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). His columns in the Washington Post condemning MBS’s ways caused deep anger in Riyadh. Hence, he was targeted; the Saudi establishment is notoriously thin skinned on dissent and criticism.
The irony that the Saudi establishment killed Khashoggi on the International Day of Non-violence has been hardly noticed by commentators or observers even after a passage of three years. Not that the Saudis murderers or their handlers would have been aware that October 2 has been devoted to non-violence under a United Nations General Assembly Resolution. And, even if they were so it would have hardly restrained them to let go of an opportunity to settle scores with Khashoggi in such a deadly way.
Three years after Khashoggi’s killing the feeling can hardly be avoided that the actual perpetrators of the murder and those who ordered it have got away very, very lightly. US president Joe Biden had eloquently claimed during the US presidential campaign that he would not allow the Khashoggi killing to go unpunished. He had heaped scorn on his predecessor Donald Trump for not holding MBS to account. Within weeks of assuming office Biden had a sanitised version of US intelligence estimate of the facts surrounding the Khashoggi murders made public. It revealed that the US intelligence community had assessed with high probability that MBS had approved the action against Khashoggi. Yet Biden did not announce any sanction against MBS. Instead his administration did so against low level functionaries. It also announced tough visa measures designed to prevent foreign government officials who take action against dissidents from entering the US. All this was an eyewash.
In a column on March 6 this year I had expressed the apprehension that the Biden administration and the international community would not take the Khashoggi murder issue any further. The passage of the past seven months seems to confirm these suspicions. Indeed, the Saudi government had prosecuted some of the accused in court. The Saudi court had sentenced some of the accused to death and others to life imprisonment. However, all the capital sentences were commuted to imprisonment. Reports indicate that none of those convicted to imprisonment are serving their sentences in regular prisons. This is not surprising for all who were part of the Khashoggi killing were members of the Saudi security services. Furthermore, there are also reports that the senior officials who were part of the plot are in the process of being rehabilitated to influential posts.
The response of the major powers to the Khashoggi murder once again shows that states are guided above all by their economic and security interests. So long as it is easy and not too costly to reconcile these interests with commitments to human rights the latter are invoked. However, a concern for human rights is never allowed at the cost of economic and security interests. This has once again been seen in Britain where the Saudi sovereign wealth fund has been permitted to purchase the well-known football team Newcastle United. The Saudi authorities have given assurances that they will not interfere with the running of the team. However, in the Saudi system the ruler has a finger in almost every pie; therefore, such guarantees even if given in a binding legal manner amount to little. In view of MBS’s reputation and the fact that he effectively controls Saudi Arabia today there has been dismay among some in Britain that their government allowed this sale to go through. It should not have been surprising though to anyone who has even an inkling of the great extent of British commercial interests in the Kingdom.
As a former professional diplomat what had stunned me about the Khashoggi murder was the brazen way the Saudi establishment planned and carried out this mafia style ‘hit’ in one of its consulates abroad. The entire act showed a total disdain for global norms and complete disrespect for Turkey which is a premier Islamic country. The opportunity for the murder arose because Khashoggi came to the consulate some days before the murder to collect documents needed for his marriage to a Turkish journalist. He was asked to come on October 2 to collect them. The days between his visit to the consulate and his visit on the day of the murder saw fifteen Saudi operatives reach Istanbul for the operation.
On the day of the murder Khashoggi and his fiancée went to the consulate. He went in and she waited outside. The perpetrators of the murder would have known that she was outside and waiting for him and yet they decided to go ahead. After the murder a person was dressed up as Khashoggi and made to go around the city to show that he had exited the consulate. It was only an international outcry and the Turkey’s great anger that its territory was used to carry out this ‘hit’ that forced the Saudis to admit the murder. But international outrage never survives economic interests as has happened in this case.
Diplomatic representations are meant to be sanctuaries for citizens in foreign lands. In Khashoggi’s case the sanctuary turned into the killing ground. Can there ever be a greater betrayal?