It is time for strong action against the Saudi regime
17 October 2018 17:35
In a world of creeping authoritarianism, digital misinformation and Post Truth, it is more important than ever to protect press freedom. The disappearance and apparent slaughter of the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi – reportedly at the hands of Saudi interrogators at the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago – is a scandal that demands more of western governments than boilerplate statements of concern and vague promises of inquiries.
According to Turkish officials, Khashoggi was brutally killed and dismembered on October 2 as his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, waited outside the building. The Saudi government’s initial insistence that he left the building alive was clearly a lie. It is now horribly clear that he met a very different fate at the hands of a murderous regime seizing the opportunity to pick off one of its most vocal and influential journalistic critics.
As one might expect, Donald Trump has taken the side of the strong man with feeble-minded credulity – just as he did when Vladimir Putin denied the findings of US intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election. ‘Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,’ the President said yesterday, ‘who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate.’ Asked by the Associated Press what had happened, Trump made no secret of his loyalties: ‘Well, I think we have to find out what happened first. Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent.’ Even for Trump, this presentation of the Saudi regime as the true victim of the case was astonishingly crass.
This is an opportunity for Britain to show that it takes a more ethical and enlightened approach to global statecraft than the US President (it could hardly do worse). In the words of Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary: ‘Across the world, people who long thought themselves as Saudi’s friends are saying this is a very, very serious matter. If these allegations are true there would be serious consequences.’
This is the correct starting-point – but what might those ‘consequences’ be? Hunt and his French and German counterparts have issued a joint statement declaring that ‘there needs to be a credible investigation to establish the truth about what happened, and – if relevant – to identify those bearing responsibility for the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, and ensure that they are held to account.’
Again, such language will amount to no more than procrastination masquerading as outrage unless it is matched by strong, swift, multilateral measures.
Khashoggi has been a thorn in the Saudis’ flesh precisely because he was a believer in fundamentalist Islam who later became a bold champion of reform. Initially, he was a comrade and supporter of Osama bin Laden and a champion of jihad. By the mid-Nineties, however, he had been persuaded that liberal democracy represented a better path for the Arab world than the Islamofascism of al-Qaeda and the theocracy of Saudi Arabia.
In September 2002, he wrote that it was his time for his compatriots to confront the hideousness of 9/11: ‘…despite the enormity of what happened, we are still in denial. We still cling to unlikely conspiracy theories and eye the truth with suspicion. We still believe that “others” (it matters not who) did it. We close our eyes to the fact that 19 Muslim young men, mostly Saudis whose names and addresses we know, decided years ago to leave home and head for what they described as jihad, or holy war.’
He was a passionate supporter of the Arab Spring in 2011 and in September last year became a regular contributor to the Washington Post. ‘When I speak of the fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to speak their minds,’ he wrote, ‘and then I tell you that I’m from Saudi Arabia, are you surprised?’
It is hard to know when, exactly, Khashoggi was targeted for direct action by the Saudi regime, but it is obvious why he was seen as a threat. As Rosalyn Wikeley wrote for DRUGSTORE CULTURE last month, the Kingdom, desperate to open up its oil-dependent economy to fresh markets, is keen to be seen as reform-minded – though its theocratic structures are mostly intact and its abuse of human rights appalling. Those, like Khashoggi, who continued to tell the truth were more vexatious than ever.
It is, of course, welcome that Saudi women are now permitted to drive. But it would be very naïve to believe that this marks a definitive shift towards liberalisation and tolerance.
Indeed, it is precisely because Saudi is so keen to perceived as reformist – and to attract investment – that the West must be unambiguously firm in its response to the Khashoggi case. The Kingdom’s grip on the world’s oil markets remains considerable. But its need for economic diversification is greater – not least because its unemployment rate is now close to 13 per cent. The Saudi regime will be deeply concerned by the number of senior businessmen who have already pulled out of the so-called “Davos in the Desert” conference in Riyadh next week– including Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of Blackstone, Bill Winters, chief executive of Standard Chartered, and Bob Bakish, boss of Viacom.
Where business has blazed a trail, governments should follow – and fast. For decades, Britain’s default diplomatic position has been to kowtow ingloriously to Riyadh, claiming always that engagement was the best to way to expedite reform – as well as a necessary feature of the UK’s global commercial strategy.
In March, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi heir apparent, was the Queen’s guest at a lunch at Buckingham Palace, hosted for dinner by the Prince of Wales and invited to talks with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. However heinous the regime’s treatment of its citizens – or its activities in Yemen – this is the ritual that Britain has long observed in its relations with the desert kingdom.
Yet it is high time that we re-evaluated this undignified relationship. To address the usual defence of the status quo first: the balance of power in our economic relationship is fast shifting. Exports in goods and services to Saudi amounted to only £6.2bn in 2016 – a mere one per cent of the UK’s total exports. Much is made of the British defence industry’s reliance upon sales to Saudi. But – again – arms sales accounted for only 0.004 per cent of Treasury revenue in 2016.
Nervous about the economy’s prospects post-Brexit, Theresa May has reportedly set a £65bn trade and investment target for UKplc in Saudi. But this is a morally bankrupt strategy. Having criticised Jeremy Corbyn – quite rightly – for his support of Venezuela’s repressive regime and his evergreen readiness to give Putin the benefit of the doubt, Conservative ministers need to consider the beam in HMG’s own eye.
The apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi is an act of state-sponsored criminality that should force a reset in Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Strong language is no more than throat-clearing. The PM and Hunt should now prepare a range of diplomatic and commercial sanctions that will leave the Saudi regime in no doubt of the seriousness of the UK’s intent.
The days when the Kingdom treated the world as its playground and acted as it pleased, where it pleased, with something close to total impunity, should be over. The community of nations need to send the strongest possible signal to Riyadh that the West has renounced its geopolitical cringe. Let Khashoggi’s legacy be one of uncompromising action.