PERHAPS we will never know the whole truth behind the Jamal Khashoggi affair. But one thing is certain, the US-based journalist and critic of Saudi Arabia walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2. Whether he re-emerged safely or was killed pursuant to a botched “interrogation” almost does not matter. His voice has been silenced.
All the major players in this crisis have betrayed nothing but disdain for freedom of the press and the value of human life. Of the whole affair, Donald Trump said “it’s a terrible thing” but demurred over sanctions saying a US$110 billion arms deal was at stake.
Turkey absolved itself of responsibility for what it believes was an assassination by foreign actors conducted on its own soil but has declined to release incontrovertible evidence that could end the speculation once and for all. An initial statement from Saudi Arabia promising an inquiry was soon followed by an angry denunciation of all allegations. “Demise is the outcome of these weak endeavours,” said Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought to paint a picture of a nation transitioning from tribalism to modernism. His was a kingdom that not too long ago boasted about allowing women to drive for the first time, hosted Trump, and was wooed by Hollywood stars like Oprah and The Rock and figures like Bill Gates.
But as Lady Macbeth remarked, “Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” The Saudi Arabian rebranding lies in complete tatters.
Saudi Arabia may feel that its vast oil reserves, said to be about 260bn barrels, give it enough clout in the global economy to weather this storm. It has significant power to drive up prices, which would hurt every major economy. Yet such a belief may be a fatal miscalculation if the West decides its relationship with Saudi Arabia does not outweigh the need to condemn and punish what many believe was a state-sponsored murder of a journalist.
The backdrop to all of this is the fact that Saudi Arabia is yet to fully recover from the belief that it played a key role in the 9/11 attacks. With extremism still a problem in the Middle East, the Kingdom might want to threaten to cut off its supply of counterterrorism intelligence to the US. But doing so would be like cutting off its own hand. The US Congress has already passed a law that would expose the Saudi government to costly civil suits for any terrorist acts.
Someone must pay for what has happened to Jamal Khashoggi. His silencing ironically speaks volumes about Saudi Arabia's true colours.