The brazen and brutal murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi shocked the conscience of people worldwide.
Well, maybe not the ruling royals in Riyadh or the cynics in Washington. Even President Donald Trump, who weakly equivocated on the complicity of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, despite the CIA (and later a U.N. panel) suggesting otherwise.
Khashoggi’s killing in an Istanbul consulate reflected a broader Saudi targeting of dissidents, both at home and abroad, in an attempt to stifle criticism.
An example of this surfaced last week with the news that the Justice Department has charged two men who once worked for Twitter with spying on Saudi dissidents, including American citizens, by accessing confidential personal data on thousands of the social media platform’s accounts. The suspects — Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi, and Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen — left Twitter in 2015. They allegedly worked with another man who was charged, Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi who previously was a social media adviser for the royal family.
Saudis use Twitter at a much higher rate than Americans. It’s one of the few venues where opinions are exchanged, albeit often under anonymous accounts. Those who speak out often face severe online harassment or worse, which is why these charges are so serious. They’re serious for Twitter, too, and it’s just the latest controversy to roil the firm just as its executives seem to finally recognize, if not completely reconcile, the tremendous privilege and responsibility the company has as a global conduit.
But the charges are most consequential for Saudi Arabia itself. Washington should continue to press the crown prince not just on the Khashoggi case but the kingdom’s human rights record and its complicity in the war in Yemen, where the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding. Congress, on a rare and welcome bipartisan basis, has tried to curtail U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war effort, but Trump, who turned a blind eye to the Khashoggi killing, similarly isn’t seeing Saudi Arabia’s Yemen record for what it is: appalling.
And it’s not just the White House but Wall Street that is quietly and continuously getting back to business as usual. Many investors are attending this year’s Future Investment Initiative (often called “Davos in the Desert”) and may take part in the initial public offering of Aramco, the massive Saudi oil company.
Given the public’s focus on the scandal, the Khashoggi case “still impacts the [U.S.-Saudi] relationship, if not dominates it,” Simon Henderson, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told an editorial writer. But don’t expect the U.S. to jettison the bilateral relationship, Henderson said, which is “essentially with Saudi Arabia rather than the ruler.” And yet, added Henderson, “My guess is they think they have a good working relationship with the White House and that’s good enough, and that could well be the case for this administration.” Whether that’s the case for future administrations is an “open question,” he said.
Congress — and candidates vying to replace Trump in 2020 — should no longer make this an open question, and clearly signal to Saudi Arabia that a policy correction is coming.