Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist from Saudi Arabia who, in recent years has been resident in the USA, has been missing since the 2nd of October. Khashoggi was visiting the Saudi Consulate in Turkey to obtain some personal documents. CCTV images very clearly show him entering the Consulate, but there are no images of him leaving afterwards.
CCTV image of Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi Consulate, Istanbul, on 2nd October 2018. There is no apparent footage of him ever leaving it subsequently. Photo c/o AFP PHOTO / DHA
Khashoggi is almost certainly dead, and if he is, it is certain that the Saudis murdered him. Were he alive and held at the Consulate, it would have been very easy for the Saudis to have paraded him on television at any stage, and so cool the growing controversy.
Moreover, Khashoggi has been highly critical of the House of al-Saud over the last few years, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman clearly sees him as a 'traitor'. According to some reports, Khashoggi had publicly claimed in August that the Saudi regime wanted him dead.
This chapter demonstrates that anyone who thinks the positive-but-shallow gesture of allowing women to drive marks the end of Saudi Arabia's gruesome history of repression is naive in the extreme. Prince Mohammed may be less religiously zealous than most of his Wahhabist predecessors, but he is every bit as ruthless, and even more aggressive, almost to the point of reckless. He shows many of the typical traits of a privileged young man to whom no one has dared say No in his life, and who has grown impatient for his turn to exercise power. His desire for reform stems far more from an economic strategy he is developing for a post-oil future than from any supposed social liberalism.
What is perhaps most interesting about this controversy though, has been the international reaction. Given the distastefully-close relationship countries in both the European Union and North America usually have with the House of al-Saud, it is arguably a surprise that there has been any reaction from them at all. But even so, the reaction has been almost cowardly in its caution.
Donald Trump, the USA's most childish President ever, has made remarks that sound concerned, and even somewhat threatening. But he has also gone out of his way to hedge his bets, expressing greater doubt about Saudi guilt than is realistic to hold, disavowing any American responsibility for Khashoggi’s well-being on the grounds of him not being a US citizen (which is technically true, but he is a US resident), and even couching reservations against taking action in terms of how much money the US receives from Saudi Arabia in exchange for arms. Arms, that is, that are used to devastate wide stretches of Yemen. (It is difficult to know what is more disgusting; the cheerful admission on Trump's part that his friendship can be bought, or the implication that 'money is worth more than people.')
In Europe, British, French and German politicians have also expressed concern and demanded an explanation from the Saudi Government, but are again withholding judgement.
In some ways, this caution could almost be viewed as refreshing. Except of course, that is precisely because it is so inconsistent with Western behaviour towards other countries. Consider earlier this year, when US, British and French air-and-naval power was deployed against Syria. The bombings were carried out in response to a supposed chemical weapons attack by the regime of Bashar al-Assad against the city of Douma. Neither Donald Trump, nor Theresa May, nor Emmanuel Macron waited for any investigation to take place - despite investigators from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons being scheduled to arrive there the next day - or for permission from the United Nations. The three leaders all prejudged the attack on Douma. Later investigation by journalist Robert Fisk found no evidence whatever of chemical weapon usage. (The OPCW investigation eventually found traces of chlorine at two of the blast sites, but no nerve agents, and no real evidence of chlorine gas - the chlorine they found could have come from almost anything.)
The silence that has greeted the non-vindication of the intervention in Syria has been deafeningly guilty. But whether there really was a chemical attack on Douma or not, the reality was that there was no restraint, no hesitation, no hedging. The American, British and French Governments went flying in, all guns blazing. It is difficult to argue that the Assad regime deserves any better, but the intervention was illegal under International Law, it was prejudiced, and its pretext was not really borne out by later findings.
The contrast between the reactions to Syrian crime and Saudi crime is therefore marked. Of course, it could be argued that I am not comparing like-with-like. Syria has been torn apart by civil war for some eight years now, and there have been many incidents of possible chemical weapon usage, and given the gulf in resources between himself and his enemies, it seems likely on balance that Assad is behind at least some of them.
But then, the difference is arbitrary; if possible chemical weapon use in Syria fits historical patterns, well, state-sanctioned political murder most certainly fits the lamentable pattern of Saudi history. And the aforementioned, largely-indiscriminate butchery in Yemen by the Saudi-led Coalition is hardly any less criminal just because it happens to be cross-border brutality instead of a war waged against the Kingdom’s own subjects.
The reasons for and strategies of Saudi Arabian and Iranian interference in Yemen.
Accumulation of repressive behaviour by the House of al-Saud is therefore at least as worthy of retribution as that of Syria, and yet Western reaction has been very restrained. Indeed, it is a sign of the over-indulgence of Saudi brutality by Western Governments that there is considerable surprise to see any reaction at all to Khashoggi's disappearance. The main reason for it, to my mind, is simply that most of the Western media are refusing to ignore the apparent murder of 'one-of-their-own'.
They will happily ignore the deaths of thousands of children, and the destruction of civilian hospitals, in ill-directed air-strikes across the region, but woe-betide any Government that silences a journalist. It would set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the media if they ignored it, so they do not. And so, Western politicians, including those on the right wing, are hurriedly making a show of sounding concerned, in hope of avoiding media disapproval.
(It is also worth noting that Saudi Arabia reduced its oil output in August, contradicting an agreement it reached with the rest of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) the previous month. That will not have endeared the Kingdom to its allies. There may also be a genuine desire to rein Prince Mohammed in a bit, as his recklessness is having a very destabilising effect across the Middle East – as demonstrated by his startling kidnapping of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, last year)
But making disapproving noises is not the same as taking action. Current rumour has it that the Saudis are poised to admit that Khashoggi is dead. Will there be Western action against the Kingdom then? Why do I feel the answer to that will not be overwhelmingly positive?
"Changing the subject entirely of course", Saudi Arabia is the USA's second-highest supplier of oil. Whereas access to Syria's oil and gas supplies is, as of early this year, controlled by Russia.
But I am, of course, confident that that has nothing whatsoever to do with it.