The gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has become an albatross around the neck of the royal family of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).
Jamal Khashoggi hadn’t been seen or heard from since October 2 when he entered the consulate building to get a divorce certificate so that he could marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, a doctoral candidate at a university in Istanbul. As per media reports, it was widely believed that the Washington Post columnist had been killed. While initially the Saudi authorities came up with bizarre explanations, it has not been established that Khashoggi is indeed dead.
The most annoying and embarrassing aspect regarding this case for Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman – known as MBS – has been the unabated and unfading nature of the incident. This affair is likely to haunt the kingdom until the mystery is solved.
The killing of a dissident on a foreign land in this manner also clearly exemplifies that, irrespective of the fact that we are living in the 21st century and irrespective of the promise that MBS has publicised through his so-called reforms, the voices of critics will not be safe.
There has been considerable pressure on the royal family, particularly on MBS, to come up with a clear stance and explain the circumstances that led to Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance. Frankly speaking, the US, the so-called champion of freedom and human rights, did not do enough to pressurise the KSA or MBS to reveal what it already knew but didn’t want the world to know.
The Trump administration significantly softened its earlier strict stance on the issue, despite there being considerable internal pressure to rein in the Saudis. Just imagine the consequences if Russia, Iran or some other unfriendly country had done this. We do not have to go far back in history to recall how the US and its allies took prompt action against Russia.
Washington, London and their other European allies reacted strongly over the failed assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the UK’s intelligence services, and his daughter Yulia Skripal in March 2018. Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury, England, most probably by Russian secret agents. The US and its allies sternly reacted. About a dozen countries immediately asked over 100 Russian diplomats and spies to leave their posts and go back to Moscow.
It was termed the “largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history”. In solidarity with the UK, the US expelled over 60 Russian diplomats and closed Russian Consulate in Seattle. Hence, the US and its allies will always adopt these double standards when it comes to dealing with countries that are their strategic partners.
In the case of the Skripals involving Russia, the stance was altogether different than it is today in the case of Jamal Khashoggi. US President Trump would never think of expelling Saudi diplomats and spies. For the US, it is more vital to safeguard its own interests in the form of an over $100 billion arms deal rather than to be perturbed by the blatant violation of human rights committed by one of its closest strategic partners.
All this appears more ironic, rather painful, as the US has a long history of legislation related to protecting human rights. It was possibly a leading aid donor that came up with congressional legislation in the 1970s and clearly linked the provision of US military and non-military assistance to respect for human rights.
Through such legislation, the US made respect for human rights a fundamental pillar of its foreign aid policy. And such laws didn’t emerge from nowhere. A number of events and processes played a part in persuading Congress to install legislation linking US aid to respect for human rights in developing countries. It is argued that “congressional interest in human rights was activated by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the backlash against the Vietnam War and a reaction to the Nixon administration’s unscrupulous foreign policy behaviour”. The intention of Congress and the American people were that US foreign policy should reflect ethical and moral principles espoused by the founding fathers of the American nation.
Adding to these legislations, the US Congress enacted another law in 2016 known as the Global Magnitsky Act. The law authorises the US government to sanction foreign government officials involved in human rights abuses anywhere in the world.
Soon after the Khashoggi incident, a number of Democratic and Republican senators jointly dispatched a letter to Trump and called for a thorough investigation into the matter and asked for determining whether to impose sanctions on foreign government officials, “including with respect to the highest-ranking officials in the government of Saudi Arabia”. The law requires the president to decide within 120 days whether or not to impose the requested sanctions on the concerned officials and entities. It was perhaps this sense of urgency that forced Trump to send his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet Saudi as well as Turkish officials to get a clearer picture of the situation.
Whatever the outcomes of Pompeo’s visits, it is becoming increasingly clear that for obvious foreign policy goals in the region, the Trump administration is not going to take any stern action vis-a-vis the Saudi royal family or MBS. At the same time, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi will haunt the Saudi government for a long time. The government must expect severe backlash and protests during their foreign official visits. After all, no one should be allowed to carry out such heinous acts, regardless of how much power one wields.
The writer holds a PhD from Massey University, New Zealand. He teaches at the University of Malakand.