The Khashoggi affair in context

On 2 October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, whilst his fiancée waited outside. He was there to collect paperwork allowing them to marry. Jamal never left the embassy. According to Turkish sources, his body left in many pieces. 

 

Photo: Matthias Schmutzer

 

Mr Khashoggi was a journalist, noted in Western circles for his column in the Washington Post. He was a moderate critic of Donald Trump and had expressed concern towards the behaviour of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and his decision to arrest a number of Saudi princes on corruption grounds. He was by no means, however, an ardent critic of the Saudi state. Nevertheless, in 2017 he fled Saudi Arabia and in an interview with Gabriel Sherman (Vanity Fair) he stated that he “began to feel whatever narrow space I had in Saudi Arabia was getting narrower. I thought it would be better to get out and be safe.” Clearly, he was correct in his analysis.

 

In the days immediately following his disappearance, worrying news emerged from Turkish Government sources. Officials allegedly had in their possession video and audio evidence which proved that Jamal Khashoggi was brutally tortured and murdered, dismembered whilst alive. According to recent coverage, the Saudi consul can be heard on the tape, asking that the torture not be carried out in front of him as he may get in trouble. A Saudi military forensics expert, having put on some headphones to listen to music, went to task dismembering the body on the Consul’s study desk. 

 

The Saudi response was one of silence and then conspiracy theories. It was the Turks, the Qataris, the Israelis. None of this stands up to a cursory examination of basic facts. 15 Saudi high-ranking Government officials, all of whom are members of Bin Salman’s inner circle, flew into Turkey on the day of the attack and that same group flew back to Riyadh later that day. There has since been acceptance from the Saudis that Khashoggi did die in the consulate, with Saudi national state TV announcing that Khashoggi died after discussions in the consulate turned violent. 

 

Photo: Matthias Schmutzer

 

Of greatest concern to us should be the response of the US and the crossing of sacred diplomatic redlines. The notion that Saudi Arabia would carry out such barbarity is hardly far-fetched; they regularly engage in beheadings, stoning and forced amputations.  It is of the highest concern that Donald Trump stated that, he “just spoke to the King of Saudi Arabia who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened to “our Saudi Arabian citizen” …” His emphasis on the fact that Jamal was a Saudi citizen – negating the fact that he has US permanent residence and US citizen children – is tacit outsourcing of the problem. In other words, the US shouldn’t involve itself because Jamal isn’t our man. Trump then followed up those comments a day later, writing on Twitter, “Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate.” 

 

Trump’s repetition of Saudi denials is at best naïve. The financial ties between Saudi Arabia and Trump offer a darker context. The Washington Post reported in August 2018 that a visit from Saudi officials to Trump’s Trump International Hotel in New York City helped boost the hotel’s quarterly revenue by 13% in 2018’s first quarter. Whilst campaigning in 2015, Trump boasted about his business dealings with the Saudis:  “I get along great with all of them; they buy apartments from me,” Trump said. “They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much!” Such financial ties are an intense conflict of interest when acting on the world diplomatic stage.Pat Robertson, a close supporter of Trump and a prominent evangelical preacher, has since stated that the $100 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia was more important than the murder of Khashoggi. 

 

Such approval to dictatorships, indicating that the murder and oppression of journalists is fair play – especially if the murdering party is buying US weapons – flies in the face of the US principal of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, covered by 1st Amendment. It doesn’t, however, contradict Trump’s vitriolic rhetoric regarding journalists and news organisations at large, referring to leading US news agencies as the “enemy of the American people”. Trump has since gone on to praise US Congressman Greg Gianforte, who came to prominence after assaulting Guardian journalist Ben Jacobs whilst on the campaign trail in 2017. During a Thursday night campaign rally, Trump commented that, “Any guy that can do a body slam… he’s my guy.” Trump has since been roundly criticised for these comments, with Theresa May’s spokesperson telling the Guardian that, “We would always say that any violence or intimidation against a journalist is completely unacceptable.”

 

Furthermore, the use of a consulate as a slaughterhouse risks breaking diplomacy. If nations begin to assume that they can safely murder their citizens abroad, the trust enshrined in consulates and embassies will be severely eroded. Diplomats will be expelled, and embassies shuttered. Without the dialogue facilitated by diplomats, the path towards conflict becomes ever more likely.

 

The murder of journalists is just one step on the road towards a desolate society. A society in which Governments and nameless officials can engage in the murkiest of behaviour without the fear of consequences. If we allow the murder of journalists to be normalised, truth will become a distant memory. We must stand up to those who seek to extinguish the uncomfortable light of journalism.

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