What the Saudis feared most in Jamal Khashoggi is now becoming a movement.
It has been two years to the day since Saudi Arabian columnist Jamal Khashoggi seemingly vanished without a trace after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
In an act that would make Houdini green with envy, the Saudi authorities claimed a week after his disappearance that, far from anything sinister being afoot, Khashoggi had simply departed the building through a back entrance and had gone on with the rest of his day.
According to the Saudis, there was nothing to be concerned about and he would eventually turn up.
Except we now all know what really happened – he was brutally murdered by a 15-man hit squad sent by senior Saudi officials, either on the orders of or on behalf of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS).
Khashoggi’s killers will not face justice
It was a kind of sick pantomime, with the Saudi authorities repeatedly changing their story. From claiming he was alive and well, to pretending he had been accidentally killed as he was held in a stranglehold during a fistfight in the consulate after Turkey kept revealing more evidence of malevolence on the part of the Saudi state, to the Saudi attorney-general finally confirming that his killing was premeditated.
The extent Riyadh was willing to go to insult the world’s intelligence over the fact that it had just murdered one of its own citizens and a writer who had simply disagreed with MBS’ vision for a new Saudi Arabia was and still is outrageous. They engaged in an elaborate if amateurish, cover-up.
Despite having a close ally like Donald Trump in the White House, even the CIA made it absolutely clear that they believed that MBS was complicit in the murder of the writer. Senator Lindsey Graham described the crown prince as a “wrecking ball” and that people would have to be “willfully blind” to ignore the fact that he was behind the brutal murder.
And brutal it was. To date, Khashoggi’s remains have not been found. According to the latest evidence, Turkish judicial indictments, and evidence from international bodies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Khashoggi was subdued, suffocated, and then professionally dismembered by a forensics specialist. His remains were then either disposed of somewhere in Turkey or dissolved in a chemical bath, with Saudi operatives tampering with evidence and scrubbing the scene of the crime.
In June 2019, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, concluded in an investigation that “credible evidence” showed senior officials in the Saudi royal court were responsible and called for an investigation into the individual liability for the slaying of high-ranking royals, including MBS himself.
Once more determined to laugh in the face of all those trying to hold Riyadh to account, a ridiculous sham trial was set up to show that the authorities were serious in holding Khashoggi’s killers to account. Eleven men stood trial last December in Saudi Arabia, with the crown prosecutor dismissing charges against three of the men, issuing jail terms to three others, and ordering the death penalty for five others.
Back then, Callamard condemned the ruling as a “mockery” of justice and highlighted the fact that senior officials such as close MBS aide Saud al Qahtani and former deputy head of Saudi intelligence Ahmad al Asiri were completely let off the hook while foot soldiers were left to take the fall.
To rub salt in the wound, early last month the death sentences were commuted by the Saudi judiciary to 20 years in prison, rightfully leading Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz to slam the decision as a “farce” and asking, “Who planned it? Who ordered it? Where is the body? These are the most important questions that remain totally unanswered.”
No one of good conscience can fault Ms Cengiz’s assessment. The Saudi royal court has closed ranks around its rogue crown prince and will protect him at all costs, justice be damned.
Opposition to MBS forms
Evidently, Khashoggi’s true killers, those who orchestrated the attack and not the human drones sent to do their bidding, will not face justice while MBS is in power and while the international community, and particularly the United States, continues to legitimise him.
In recent revelations, Trump was even reported to have bragged to a journalist that he protected MBS from the global backlash.
However, and in an ironic twist of fate, a kind of cosmic justice may be inflicted upon Riyadh in the near future as a Saudi opposition begins to take shape.
On the Saudi National Day on 23 September, a London-based Saudi Arabian dissident group formally announced it had created an opposition party called the National Assembly Party that opposes not only MBS but the absolute monarchy that has governed Saudi since 1932. Their stated aim is to introduce democracy into the oil-rich country by means of a referendum to ascertain the people’s choice in how they want to be ruled.
This must be galling for the Saudi royal court. Part of the motivation in the killing of Khashoggi was to stifle and kill off any dissent against their rule. Even soft-spoken critics like Khashoggi were not tolerated and Riyadh’s domestic human rights record against dissidents is amongst the most abysmal globally, with people routinely jailed and tortured for expressing views deemed unpalatable to the ruling royals.
However, by acting in an extraordinarily brutal manner and killing a man who did nothing more than speak and write, MBS and his coterie actually helped provide the momentum to create the kind of political opposition they always dreaded and had been avoiding since the Arab Spring.
Although it is early days yet and it is unknown how exactly the new opposition group will go about achieving its aims, the mere fact that it exists and in such a public manner demonstrates that people are willing to challenge MBS’ grip on power, even members of his own family, such as exiled Prince Khalid bin Farhan Al Saud who is also calling for democratic transition and regime change.
MBS has singlehandedly managed to unite both the common Saudi people and members of the royal family in a singular cause to topple him. Even if the two opposition factions from the two disparate strata of Saudi society do not work together, MBS is now facing a two-front war against his reign. Whether he lasts or not is now the question, and he may find himself paying for what he did to Khashoggi one day.