It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. The global outrage at the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, by henchmen of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Istanbul four years ago made many believe that this time, finally, democratic governments led by the United States would hold the Saudis accountable for their crimes. But as the promises to punish MBS, as the crown prince is known, have faded away, the dreaded (and well-predicted) consequences of the failure to act have proliferated. Abusive governments have declared open season on their critics the world over, not only gunning down and imprisoning journalists on their own turf, but spreading their repression to Western countries. We're still paying, and will keep paying, for giving MBS a pass.
Following Khashoggi's murder, at least 28 countries around the world, including the United States, acted with lighting speed to sanction nearly every Saudi government agent involved in the killing. Though always stopping short of sanctioning MBS himself, the punishments—typically travel bans and asset freezes—included two of MBS' most senior advisers, Saud al-Qahtani and Gen. Ahmad Asiri. Khashoggi's murder also provided the dramatic push many governments needed to announce bans on Saudi arms sales, already a political liability in the face of years of Saudi war crimes in Yemen using Western armaments. No Western leader spoke out as critically and absolutely as Joe Biden, who promised on the campaign trail not only to end U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia as president, but to make the Saudis "pay the price" for murdering Khashoggi and to treat them as "the pariah that they are."
The murder appeared to have clarified the stakes to Western leaders more clearly and dramatically than ever before. Unless they took serious action to punish Saudi Arabia for this blatant act of extraterritorial repression, tyrants and autocrats everywhere would see a green light to target their own critics around the world, including residents of the United States and other Western countries. After all, if some tin-pot crown prince who is not even head of state could get away with murdering a Saudi writer working in the capital city of the world's greatest superpower, then who would bother to stop them from attacking less prominent political exiles scattered throughout the West?
Abusive governments have declared open season on their critics the world over, not only gunning down and imprisoning journalists on their own turf, but spreading their repression to Western countries.
- Sarah Leah Whitson
Yet the siren call of Saudi petrodollars controlled by MBS, and the lavish purchases he has made not only from Western arms industries, but industries across the board—from technology, to sports and entertainment, to investment banking, construction and, of course, consulting—have been too tempting to turn down. One after another, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands have fallen back in line, lifting their bans on Saudi arms sales. None of these reversals has been more lucrative than that of the United States, with President Biden approving over $3 billion in weapons sales this past August following his trip to Saudi Arabia and embarrassing meeting with MBS.
And if that weren't enough, MBS' willingness to barter loosening the Saudi oil spigot in return for his normalization silenced any remaining loose talk about accountability for Khashoggi's murder. If the image of Biden fist-bumping with MBS in Riyadh, chummily letting bygones be bygones, wasn't clear enough, French President Emmanuel Macron breaking bread with the crown prince at the Élysée Palace in Paris has laid the matter to rest. All that matters is money and oil; so much for justice and accountability. We're back to business as usual with the Saudi murderer.
But civil society has only just started to pay the bills for this failure, with a dramatic escalation in acts of extraterritorial repression and attacks on journalists by tyrants worldwide, to say nothing of their unleashing of domestic repression. While countries like Iran have sent agents to target activists in New York, regional allies of the United States, in particular, have taken a clear cue from the meager, short-lived consequences MBS has faced. Egypt has deployed spies against Egyptian-Americans in New York and New Jersey, holding hostage and even jailing their family members in Cairo. Saudi Arabia itself continues to harass, threaten and attack critics in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, while also issuing travel bans on their relatives in the kingdom.
After lying for months and blaming Palestinians for the killing of prominent Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while she was reporting on an Israeli military raid in the West Bank, Israel finally admitted that an IDF sniper shot her—but it has tried to brush the incident aside, rejecting any responsibility for wrongdoing. Indeed, it's a sad state of affairs when MBS' latest defense for murdering Khashoggi was, reportedly, whataboutism to Biden in Riyadh for his failure to hold Israel accountable for the murder of Abu Akleh.
Khashoggi's murder four years ago is on MBS and Saudi Arabia—we all know that. But the expanded dangers of extraterritorial repression to people in our own countries for failing to hold MBS accountable? That's on our governments and leaders.
- Sarah Leah Whitson
We can take some small comfort that nongovernmental organizations are stepping in, as best they can, to do the work our governments have failed to do: to hold abusers they've now dubbed as "partners" accountable, to protect civil society and to defend our most cherished freedom—our free speech. DAWN, founded by Jamal Khashoggi, is still pursuing a lawsuit against MBS in the United States for Khashoggi's murder, as well as a criminal complaint against MBS we just filed with French prosecutors in July. While our governments are falling over themselves for Saudi oil and cash, advocacy groups with their minuscule budgets are working hard to fill the gap and address the harms befalling our own countries for coddling rich dictators like MBS.
We want our governments to do their most important job: protect our people, our freedoms and our democracy, not sell them to the highest bidder for so-called national interests and corporate profits. Khashoggi's murder four years ago is on MBS and Saudi Arabia—we all know that. The U.S. government's own intelligence assessment said so. But the expanded dangers of extraterritorial repression to people in our own countries for failing to hold MBS accountable? That's on our governments and leaders, starting with Joe Biden.