Four years on from Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

The current political climate, which is characterized by mistrust, fear-mongering and propaganda, makes it seem like we’ve never been so disconnected from one another. This is why the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi will have a lasting effect on global relations for decades to come. From Russia to the United States and everywhere in between, trust is at an all-time low. As such, the murder of Mr Khashoggi has brought tensions between nations to a fever pitch — one that will be difficult to subside anytime soon. 

To many people who follow international news and politics, Jamal Khashoggi was not a stranger. He was a well-known journalist who often wrote articles critical of the Saudi Arabian monarchy and its human rights abuses against their own citizens as well as foreign visitors such as journalists and pilgrims to Mecca. In fact, in 2018 he disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Since then there has been much speculation about what happened to him but almost no evidence while his fiancée Hatice Cengiz has been putting pressure on the Saudi Arabia government for answers continually since he went missing.

Who is Jamal Khashoggi?

Jamal Khashoggi was a 59-year-old Saudi Arabian journalist and author. He was also a Virginia-based resident who has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, Al-Hayat and other publications for decades. He was also the editor-in-chief of The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section. Khashoggi was also a frequent commentator on political talk shows such as PBS NewsHour, CNN and Fox News. He was also known for being a part of the Saudi Arabian royal family. He was the eldest son of Adnan Khashoggi, a billionaire businessman and arms dealer who was a friend of the Saudi royal family.

Why was he in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul?

Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to obtain the documents he needed to be able to marry his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. He was given assurances that the process would be quick and straightforward. However, the journalist was not seen again since that day and the consulate issued a statement saying that Khashoggi had left the building. However, a source “with knowledge of the investigation” told CNN that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. His disappearance prompted the Turkish authorities to enter the consulate and conduct a thorough investigation. After nine hours of investigation, they discovered that the consulate walls were spattered with blood. Later they found out that the Saudi consulate was equipped with a soundproof room and a “kill committee” that included royal guards and a forensics expert. It is believed that Khashoggi was killed in the soundproof room and then his body was dismembered. Evidence suggests that the Saudis meant to dispose of Khashoggi’s body, which he had been in the process of divorcing from the Saudi state, by flying it out of the country. In the weeks and days leading up to his disappearance, Khashoggi was given several death threats and was told that he would be imprisoned or killed if he didn’t return to Saudi Arabia.

How did he die?

Not much is known about the actual murder itself — there are only speculations. The Saudi government claims that Khashoggi died during a fistfight that broke out inside the consulate. However, they have yet to provide any evidence, let alone a convincing explanation, that a fistfight killed a 60-year-old man who was a former member of the Saudi Arabian special forces. According to the Turkish investigation team, Khashoggi was dismembered and his body was dissolved in acid inside the consulate and then disposed of by being flown out of the country. This has been the hardest part of the investigation because it is unclear where the body went. If the Saudi consulate is implicated in the murder, then the consulate would be considered an extension of Saudi sovereignty. As such, the consulate and its contents are considered sovereign soil, meaning that the Turkish authorities could not enter it without Saudi Arabia’s permission.

What does this mean for Saudi Arabia and its relations with the US?

The murder of Khashoggi has been a public relations nightmare for Saudi Arabia. The international community has been critical of their handling of the situation and the Saudi Arabian government has been trying to cover up the incident ever since it took place. From the very beginning, their handling of the investigation has been inept. First, they waited two weeks before admitting to the death of Khashoggi when the incident happened two weeks earlier. Then they sent a handful of men to investigate a crime that took place in a heavily guarded building with a potential death squad inside. The Saudi authorities then tried to blame the incident on rogue actors in the Saudi government without actually revealing the identities of these actors. This is all although the Saudi Arabian authorities have known the identities of those involved in the incident since the moment it happened. This has drawn the ire of the American government and has led to a serious crisis in relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Then US President Donald Trump, who has been a close ally of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, expressed disappointment with Saudi Arabia’s handling of the incident. The US has also threatened Saudi Arabia with severe sanctions if they are found guilty of the death of Khashoggi.

What does this mean for the US and its relations with Saudi Arabia?

The US has long been considered a close ally of Saudi Arabia. They have a joint military presence in the Middle East and have been allies since the 1940s. They also share a common enemy in Iran. However, the assassination of Khashoggi has put the US in a very difficult position. On the one hand, they don’t want to completely alienate Saudi Arabia, a close ally. As seen in President Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in August which Biden defended due to high gas prices.

On the other hand, the US want to appear as if they are whitewashing Saudi Arabia’s crimes for political reasons. In the end, the US has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s handling of the situation but has stopped short of imposing sanctions or severing ties. 

Just last week, King Salman announced that was making an exception to Saudi law and naming his son as prime minister, formally ceding the dual title of king and prime minister he had personally held until now. The timing of this decision is notable given that the Biden administration had been asked by a US judge to weigh in on whether Prince Mohammed ought to be protected by sovereign immunity in a case brought by the fiancee of Khashoggi, Hatice Cengiz.

What does this mean for democracy worldwide?

The death of Khashoggi is more than just a tragic event in the lives of people who knew him or a nightmare in the global political arena. It is a sign that authoritarian regimes are becoming brazen in their attempts to maintain power through violence and propaganda. The fact that the Saudi Arabian government would go so far as to kill a journalist in their own consulate in a foreign country just shows how little they care about democracy. In fact, it is unlikely that the current Saudi Arabian regime would ever allow free and fair elections. Since the ascendance of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to power, there has been a significant crackdown on political dissent and a more aggressive approach toward foreign relations. The assassination of Khashoggi is a warning to the world that authoritarian regimes are not only interested in maintaining power through propaganda but also through force. This poses a serious threat to global democracy and the free press.

Image Credit: REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger/File Photo