Will the Saudi regime get away with murder?
, an activist and writer from Saudi Arabia, provides the background for understanding the crisis that suddenly faces the Saudi state and its American backers.
THE REPRESSIVE Saudi state and especially its bloody relationship with the American empire are under scrutiny after the disappearance and presumed murder of a prominent Saudi journalist and former adviser on intelligence matters.
On October 2, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul to get documents pertaining to a divorce. His new fiancé waited hours for him to get back, but he never did.
Khashoggi left the kingdom in 2017, fearing arrest due to his sympathetic relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia opposes throughout the Middle East.
Since his self-exile, Khashoggi has transformed from a loyalist who as late as 2016 celebrated the execution of dissidents and praised the disastrous U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war for “saving Yemen” into an ardent critic of Saudi Arabia’s ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (commonly referred to as MBS).
A columnist for the Washington Post, Khashoggi was reportedly about to launch a pro-democracy organization called “Democracy for the Arab World Now.”
The disappearance and presumed murder has precipitated another self-inflicted crisis for MBS. But he likely doesn’t fear it, having risen to power from a royal family that has enjoyed international impunity for decades, and knowing that he has sympathizers in the Trump White House, including the president himself.
The power in the hands of the royal family, and particularly of one man, would not be possible without a system that allows the concentration of such wealth and power — that is, capitalism.
As for Khashoggi’s fate, there are so far only unverified and contradictory leaks, statements and theories, including stories of a kill team in the Istanbul embassy, the dismemberment of Khashoggi’s corpse and his possible recording of the murder with an Apple Watch.
The Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan doesn’t seem intent on exploiting the incident in its feud with Saudi Arabia, refusing any independent international investigation.
THE INTERNATIONAL response was swift and condemning. Numerous calls for an independent inquiry included a joint statement by British, French and German foreign ministers calling for a “credible investigation.”
Multinational corporations and media outlets have pulled out of an international financial conference later this month that had been dubbed “Davos in the Desert” — though Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has so far refused to cancel his trip.
In the U.S., political leaders from both parties condemned the state’s role in Khashoggi’s disappearance, including those who voted in favor of the latest multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
Republican Marco Rubio, for example, called on “the civilized world” to “respond strongly.” Earlier this year, Rubio voted against ending U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war on Yemen that has caused an ongoing famine, massive devastation and tens of thousands of deaths.
After earlier hesitating to say that he would cut off arms sales, Trump later promised “severe punishment” if it is proven that Khashoggi was killed. The Saudi government responded — after a 7 percent plunge in the stock market — that it was prepared to “respond with greater action.”
Whatever their rhetoric now, the reactions from Saudi Arabia’s longtime Western allies clearly aren’t based on any kind of principled support for human rights.
The U.S. and other Western countries have historically and consistently supported dictatorial and reactionary regimes in the Global South and opposed democracy and national self-determination. MBS himself pointed out that absolute monarchies have always been allies of the U.S.
No matter which party was in charge, the U.S., French and British governments have continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite domestic opposition. These imperialist states are still playing a key role in supporting bin Salman’s war on Yemen.
SO WHAT is it that makes Khashoggi’s apparent murder so uniquely condemnable that Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham — who also supported the continuation of the genocidal war on Yemen with his Senate votes — suddenly started talking about human rights?
No such high-level criticism was issued when MBS detained several hundred businessmen and political figures last year in a naked bid to consolidate his personal power — nor after the Saudi government disappeared dissidents in European capitals last year.
When, earlier this year, women’s rights activists were arrested, there was a short-lived media outcry and a largely isolated Canadian government call for “the immediate release” of human rights defenders. But after a severe Saudi response, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau extended an olive branch to bin Salman.
There are a couple potential explanations.
For one, Khashoggi is a very visible victim, considered worthy of attention, especially by the media. He is a Washington Post columnist and well-connected in Washington — someone these elites can see and identify with.
But there may also be a developing sentiment that MBS is out of control and becoming an unreliable ally. He is responsible for a series of international and domestic crises that not only further destabilize the region, but his own rule.
After Saudi Arabia led other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council in cutting ties with Qatar, bin Salman’s government announced an absurd plan to dig out a canal next to the Saudi-Qatari border, to be used as a nuclear waste dump — with a tourist resort to be constructed on land adjacent to the canal!
Figures close to MBS and government trolls have sent threatening tweets to human rights activists outside Saudi Arabia, advising them, for example, that “the Saudi embassy would like to have a word with you.”
Along with condemning the disappearance of Khashoggi, top senators from both parties invoked the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, which gives the White House 120 days to decide on imposing sanctions “against anyone found responsible for the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, even if that includes the leaders of Saudi Arabia.”
Some observers have speculated that this could be a signal to sectors within the royal family to take action against MBS. But whether such an attempt would succeed is anybody’s guess.
A coup attempt or intra-royal-family conflict might open up opportunities for a broader challenge to the standing order, but here, too, it isn't certain that these forces would represent an alternative that is fundamentally different. Whatever course such developments might take, progressive forces in Saudi Arabia are fragile and fragmented.
IN THE short term, the situation is ominous. In an October 5 interview with Bloomberg, MBS stated that the women’s rights activists arrested earlier this year will face charges amounting to espionage, which could lead to a death sentence.
Other activists have either been silenced or driven out the country — and even those who have escaped continue to fear for the lives of their loved ones and, after Khashoggi’s disappearance, even their own.
Activists are nevertheless doing their best in a difficult situation, using whatever means we have to tackle all kinds of social issues: for example, creating documentaries, feminist podcasts and online spaces where women can talk safely about their experiences sexual assault, as well as speaking out against rising xenophobia.
Those challenging the many faces of repression and working for change in Saudi Arabia are in need for international solidarity. But those working for justice around the world must not only take up their cause, but also that of those most harmed by Saudi transgressions: namely, the people of Yemen.
In countries providing arms and key logistical support that enable bin Salman’s war on Yemen, activists should demand an end to the war and to arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They should maintain a principled opposition to their own ruling classes’ imperialist transgressions.
Our struggles are one. The ruling class’s brutal treatment of racialized communities abroad will be be used against its own. When Saudi women, and women in Muslim-majority countries in general, are portrayed as mere victims, lacking any agency, this is also an attack on women’s agency everywhere.
Above all, victories for justice achieved at home cannot be sustained without a fight for justice on the international level.