Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to pick up a document that would allow him to marry his fiancè. This occured on Oct. 2, and Khashoggi has not been seen or heard from since. Khashoggi’s exact fate remains uncertain at the time, but the facts that are known suggest a disturbing course of events. Writing for the Washington Post while in self imposed exile to the United States, Khashoggi was a frequent and outspoken critic of the Saudi government and royal family, including crown prince, and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman. According to U.S. intelligence intercepts, the crown prince had attempted to persuade Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia, most likely with the intent of detaining him; however, suspecting a trap and fearing for his life, Khashoggi declined to return. Meanwhile, reports from Turkey show that on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance, 15 men with ties to Saudi security services and in possession of a bone saw arrived in Istanbul on private jets from the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. These men went to the consulate around the same time as Khashoggi, exited a few hours later, and flew back to Riyadh the same day. Turkey also claims to have an audio recording of Khashoggi being tortured and killed, and has discovered Saudi attempts to destroy evidence. The current Saudi explanation is that Khashoggi was killed in a fight in the embassy, but this explanation is beyond implausible and all known facts seem to indicate that Jamal Khashoggi was deliberately murdered by the Saudi government because he dared to speak out.
The United States’ alliance with Saudi Arabia has always depended on an unofficial understanding that U.S. leaders would overlook Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record because of their value as an ally and a business partner, but this approach has real consequences for people, and Jamal Khashoggi must be the last casualty of our indifference. In addition to this latest murder, the last year has seen Saudi Arabia enact brutal purges, round up activists and continue to wage a brutal war in Yemen with no regard for civilian life or international law. Not only has the U.S. ignored this, but we’ve enabled it, selling the Saudis weapons that they’ve gone on to kill civilians with. This quite clearly has to stop. We will always have imperfect allies in this imperfect world of ours, but we can ask them to be better than this. Maintaining alliances is an important part of international diplomacy, but if we let ourselves stray too far from our values as we ostensibly fight for those same values, then the fight is rather moot. There is no easy line for what constitutes going too far, nor would it be a great idea for the U.S. to outline exactly how many human rights violations it’s willing to overlook, but Saudi Arabia has gone too far, and if we don’t take action now they’ll only get worse.
Unfortunately, the person with the most power to punish the Saudis is President Donald Trump. In addition to his concerning admiration for authoritarian leaders and the fact that he obviously despises the idea of a free press, even going so far as to praise violence against an American reporter this week, there is another reason to suspect that Trump will never hold the Saudis accountable: financial conflicts of interests. Trump has had long standing business relationships with the Saudis and Saudi lobbying in the U.S. has tripled since Trump took office. While Trump recently denied that he has any conflicts of interest with Saudi Arabia, back during the 2016 election he commented that he likes the Saudis very much because they buy apartments from him, which is a blatant conflict of interest. With all of this in mind, it’s as unsurprising as it is appalling that Trump accepted bin Salman’s denial at face value, and that the two of them are apparently trying to find a mutually convenient explanation. Still, there may still be something that can be done. A bipartisan group of senators is talking about invoking the Global Magnitsky Act, the same legislation the U.S. has used to sanction Russia in the past, which would be a much needed step in the right direction. If the United States is going to continue promoting democracy and human rights, which it should, it needs to start holding its allies to a higher standard.