The global glare is on Saudi Arabia and its youthful ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, over allegations that the Saudi government kidnapped, interrogated, tortured, killed and dismembered a dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, while he was at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Khashoggi, who wrote for the Washington Post, was living in self-exile in the U.S.
If the allegations coming from Turkey are proven true, the world should be shocked.
But sadly, not surprised, since evidence already existed that the 33-year-old crown prince, widely known as MbS, wasn’t really a modernizing reformer, but a retrograde, repressive tyrant.
The evidence was already apparent in Yemen, scene of a horrifying humanitarian disaster triggered in part by Saudi forces’ indiscriminate bombing raids meant to tilt the scales in that country’s savage civil war.
It’s seen in some other countries, too, where the long arm of Saudi security services has silenced dissent from some Saudis living abroad.
And Washington provided its own evidence in the State Department’s “Saudi Arabia 2017 Human Rights Report,” which details a litany of grave abuses, including unlawful killings and torture, as well as arbitrary arrest and detention of lawyers, human rights activists and antigovernment reformists.
Add journalists to that mix.
“Between 25 and 30 professional and nonprofessional journalists are currently detained in Saudi Arabia, which is ranked 169th out of 180 countries in RSF’s [Reporters Without Borders] World Press Freedom Index,” according to the media-freedom organization, which has referred the Khashoggi case to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
That international institution and other organizations meant to preserve some semblance of global order is competing with a more ad hoc axis of authoritarianism that has arisen and strengthened in recent years.
“The world is witnessing the development of an authoritarian alliance — these regimes are learning from one another and they are sharing intelligence and surveillance strategies,” Celine Boustani, a lawyer at the Human Rights Foundation, said in an e-mail interview.
“Until now Saudi Arabia was never seen as being in the same league for viciousness as [Bashar] Assad’s Syria or Saddam’s [Hussein] Iraq,” Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said via e-mail. “But Saudi Arabia is an ally [of the U.S.], and Syria and Iraq were not. The Khashoggi case, if confirmed, is unique and a major policy challenge for U.S. policymakers.”
So far, the Trump administration doesn’t seem up to the challenge.
President Donald Trump — whose son-in-law, White House aide Jared Kushner, has cultivated close ties to MbS — was initially silent, and then gave a few halting statements, including “I don’t like it. No good.”
Trump seemed more verbally certain at rallies this week, when he once again derided the free press as fake news despite the real news of Khashoggi’s disappearance, as well as an analysis from Reporters Without Borders that said that so far this year 56 journalists have been killed worldwide, which is more than the entire 2017 total of 55. When asked earlier by a reporter if his characterization of some media organizations as enemies of the people sent the wrong signal to Saudi Arabia, Trump didn’t answer.
The president seemed to find his voice again regarding the spiraling crisis with his administration’s key Gulf ally. But it wasn’t about Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record, or reckless and deadly incursion into Yemen, but about the impact on U.S. arms sales to the kingdom. “I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion — which is an all-time record — and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money,” Trump said.
Personifying Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,” Trump seems willing to prioritize arms sales to a country that’s used its weaponry to kill innocents in Yemen, and to a government that may have murdered a U.S.-based journalist in Turkey, among other atrocities.
But first he’ll have to get by the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. And Congress, complicit so often in so many administration actions that erode global confidence in U.S. leadership, is pressing the president: On a bipartisan basis, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote a letter to Trump that said the Saudi journalist’s disappearance “suggests that he could be a victim of gross violation of internationally recognized human rights.” The letter officially triggered the Global Magnistsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which gives the president 120 days to decide whether to sanction foreign officials.
Republican Rand Paul was blunter: “The Saudis will keep killing civilians and journalists as long as we keep arming and assisting them,” the Kentucky senator tweeted. “The President should immediately halt arms sales and military support to Saudi Arabia.”
The United States, said the Bernstein Program’s Henderson, “should condemn what happened in the loudest and clearest terms.”
Several U.S.-based businesses are coming to this conclusion, too. Many media organizations as well as tech and investment firms have deserted “Davos in the Desert,” as the government-funded Future Investment Initiative was colloquially called. The confab, which is still set to take place in two weeks, will be held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, where MbS once held hundreds of wealthy Saudi Arabians in what he deemed an anti-corruption campaign but others claimed was a violent silencing, and shakedown, of some Saudi citizens. At risk is the crown prince’s push to diversify the Saudi economy beyond oil.
A dramatic distancing from corporate America and the U.S. government would send a signal not only to MbS, but other leaders looking to quash dissent. “Democracies around the world — including the United States — must stand up to dictators like Mohammed bin Salman who have been emboldened by the inaction and indifference of democratic leaders to gruesome violations of human rights,” said Boustani. “From Russia poisoning spies on British soil to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan kidnapping teachers in Moldova and Malaysia to the Saudi monarchy likely murdering a journalist in Turkey — it is quite clear that now is the time for free countries to join forces to push back against tyranny.”
The U.S. should lead this pushback. It’s encouraging that Congress seems to have rediscovered its role in the debate and America’s role in the world. The president should, too: Because America’s most valuable export should in fact be values.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.