A Year After Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia Appears Untouched

People take part in a candle light vigil to remember journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate on October 25, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey.

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Why you should care

President Donald Trump embraced Saudi Arabia’s leader despite suspicions that he ordered a journalist’s horrific murder.

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WHAT TO KNOW

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Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

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What happened? One year ago this week, Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, 59, walked into his country’s consulate in Istanbul and never came out. The details of Khashoggi’s brutal murder leaked out in the days and weeks that followed, but despite initial outrage against Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman, who’s suspected to have ordered the killing, the case doesn’t seem to have damaged his regime. In fact, he’s closer than ever to President Donald Trump’s administration. 

Why does it matter? On Sunday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appeared on 60 Minutes and accepted blame for the murder. Sort of: He actually said he bears “full responsibility” not because he ordered the killing but because it “was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government.” The CIA has said it believes MBS ordered the killing himself, and while Saudi Arabia put 11 people on trial in secret for the murder, nobody has yet been convicted. Meanwhile, Trump has lauded the Saudi leader for modernizing the kingdom and for supporting U.S. industry by buying American military equipment — and even more important, he’s indicated that he’ll let Saudi Arabia lead the way on policy toward Iran after an attack on Saudi oil facilities this month.

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

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A woman holds a portrait of missing journalist and Riyadh critic Jamal Khashoggi reading

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Emboldening strongmen. Saudi Arabia has been known for its brutal detention and treatment of activists. But crossing a border to murder Khashoggi on Turkish soil was crossing another line — one that worried dissidents in exile the world over when Saudi Arabia saw few repercussions for the journalist’s death. This spring, a Palestinian activist in exile in Norway was whisked into hiding by authorities after the CIA passed on information that Saudi officials might be targeting him. Meanwhile, the Saudi government is reportedly attempting to lure some of its exiles home — in part to keep them from bad-mouthing the kingdom abroad as it attempts to rebrand itself as a modernizing state. 

But not all strongmen. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s jailed many of his internal critics, has been labeled a strongman himself. But this week he stood up for Khashoggi in a Washington Post column, promising to keep pushing for answers (like who authorized the murder) and accusing Saudi Arabia of letting killers operate with impunity. 

Civil society. Saudi Arabia’s made some cosmetic strides when it comes to human rights, like lifting a ban on women driving, but the Khashoggi killing likely intensified scrutiny of other human rights abuses there, including the torture of detainees who protested sexist laws. However, the lack of follow-through — and gruesome details of the killing — likely had a chilling effect on the country’s fledgling civil rights movements. Still, there are signs of hope: Last week the U.N. voted down a Saudi attempt to derail a human rights investigation in Yemen.

Next steps. Khashoggi’s case may not have been resolved, but it also hasn’t disappeared from the public mind. U.N. special rapporteur Agnès Callamard, who led an investigation of the case, is still calling for an official U.N. probe, for CIA files on Khashoggi to be declassified — and for the world community to hold MBS to account by moving the November 2020 G20 summit from its scheduled location in Riyadh. And just like Ukraine, Saudi Arabia could be wrapped up in impeachment proceedings against Trump: According to recent reports, the White House took extra steps to conceal the content of calls between Trump and MBS — raising investigatory antennae on Capitol Hill.

WHAT TO READ

‘See You Soon,’ He Smiled, Then Walked in to Meet his Saudi Slaughterers, by Jonathan Rugman in The Sunday Times

“Who knows where he is? I don’t want to think about it. Not having his body to bury makes me wonder if he is going to come back — if I might run into him again.”

Turkish Newspaper Reveals Khashoggi’s Last Words, in the Associated Press

“Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi urged his killers not to cover his mouth because he had asthma and could suffocate.”

WHAT TO WATCH

The Assassination of Jamal Khashoggi

“People still don’t understand how this happened.”

Watch at the Washington Post on YouTube:

Saudi Crown Prince Takes ’All the Responsibility’ for Khashoggi Murder

“It happened under my watch.”

Watch at France 24 on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Opposition. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi spoke out against continued U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, linking Trump and MBS and citing reports of human rights violations (including Khashoggi’s murder). That calls into question whether Saudi Arabia’s long-standing relationship with the U.S. would fare well under Trump’s successors.

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