Saudi Arabia has been in hot water lately. Not for their genocidal campaign in Yemen that has left countless thousands dead and millions displaced into lives of famine and disease. Not for their repressive iron-fisted rule that sees women as second-class citizens and has executed those guilty of speaking out against the government. Not even for Mohammad Bin-Salman’s purging of his cabinet and kingdom of those critical of his rule. Saudi Arabia’s latest headline is for their role in the disappearance of a prominent Saudi journalist who in recent years has become more vocally critical of the regime.
Jamal Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2, and was never heard from again. Despite Saudi claims that he left the consulate after conducting his business, Turkish CCTV footage showed him entering, but never exiting.
Turkish and US authorities are now saying that they have audio and video evidence that Khashoggi was murdered by a 15-man Saudi assassination squad within the consulate, and possibly dismembered before being carried out by this same team with his body parts possibly flown back to Saudi Arabia for disposal.
This brazen act carried out by Mohammad Bin-Salman’s regime has shocked the world, leading to strong condemnations from some Saudi allies and international journalists, with a more muted response coming from the US government. Trump has stated that he plans to move forward with a $100 billion arms sale to the monarchy, despite heavy bipartisan criticism throughout the rest of the country. This should come as no surprise, however, given Trump’s well-known disdain for journalists.
This negative attention is long overdue for Saudi Arabia. While I’m glad that people are outraged over the brazen murder of a prominent journalist on foreign soil, what I can’t let go of is why it took this long for people to pay attention to the utter depravity of the monarchy, or the sudden lopsided interest in governments targeting journalists.
Saudi Arabia has been carrying out a brutal, relentless war campaign in Yemen since mid-2015, spearheaded by Mohammad Bin-Salman. This campaign against the coastal country has decimated its population. Various agencies have been unable to give an accurate accounting of the number killed, with the most recent UN estimate being 10,000 as of January 2017, over a year and a half ago. Even at that time, the number was a very low estimate. UN figures at the time also listed the number of those displaced at 3 million.
The Saudi-led war, carried out with US support, has only grown more intense in the year since. UN and human rights agencies have warned that Yemen is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, with widespread famine and death posed to erupt at any moment.
Despite this horror, US officials, celebrities, investors, and the population at large remains widely uncritical and uninterested, ignoring the plight of the suffering Yemenis.
In September 2017, Saudi Arabia lifted the ban it had imposed that had prohibited women from driving. This move was widely praised throughout the West by both journalists and progressive activists alike, but few paid attention to the fact that the very Saudi women who had long campaigned and fought for this basic freedom were still imprisoned, smeared, and widely promoted as traitors by Saudi media and government agencies. These same leaders of women’s rights in the kingdom are to be tried by Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Supreme Court — a court meant to try those accused of terrorism and carrying out attacks against civilians. Yet despite all this, no international outcry.
I’m left wondering, why now? I don’t mean to diminish the severity of Khashoggi apparent assassination, but what is it about this one journalist that made his life more worthy of international outcry, widespread condemnation, and deteriorating ties with the repressive, Wahhabist monarchy?
I’ve long been critical of Saudi Arabia, and amazed at the general short-sightedness and short-term memory of the US media and the general population. 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were of Saudi origin, and yet we invade and decimate Iraq and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia is the center of the Wahhabist ideology that has fueled numerous terror groups in the modern era and contributed to the destabilization of parts of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is a country that regularly arrests and detains journalists critical of the monarchy or that threaten the status quo in any way, and yet we’re shocked at this attack?
Governments regularly carry out extrajudicial assassinations, the US government included. The US drone program, which has launched hundreds and hundreds of attacks in the last decade, have killed several thousand militants — but also hundreds of civilians. A report by The Intercept in 2015 revealed that only 10% of those killed by US drone strikes from 2011–2013 were the intended targets. That means that 90% of those killed by the US in that period were “collateral damage”. This includes a strike carried out by the US in which a van containing 14 people returning from a wedding were all killed after being mistaken for militants. That’s not the first time the US attacked a group of wedding-goers, having killed 47 civilians, including 39 women and children, in Afghanistan in 2008. In April of this year, Saudi Arabia also struck a wedding party, killing 20 civilians.
Maybe it was the brazen nature of the abduction and assassination on foreign soil? The US, as mentioned earlier, regularly employs “targeted killings,” which is simply a more politically correct way of saying “assassinations,” as does the US’s biggest ally, Israel, which Israeli-journalist Ronen Bergman described as practicing “assassination and targeted-killing more than any other country in the West”. Israel regularly targets Palestinian journalists, and just this year alone has murdered two journalists covering the weekly Great March of Return protests in the Gaza strip, despite both having been wearing clearly marked “PRESS” uniforms. In the past, Israel has even resorted to publishing animated videos mocking journalists reporting from the Gaza strip, and faced little outrage despite their history of violent repression against the press.
The US is also notorious for killing journalists in the countries it invades. An investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that 200 journalists and media support workers were killed, with many killed in US “targeted killings” during the US invasion of Iraq. In 2001, the US destroyed Al-Jazeera’s office in Kabul, Afghanistan in a targeted missile strike. In April of 2003, another US missile hit the Al-Jazeera office in Baghdad, killing one reporter, Tareq Ayyoub, and severely damaging the building. Shortly after, a US tank fired upon the Baghdad Hotel, a well-known building hosting many international journalists, killing another two. Both of these strikes came at a time in which the news network was being actively derided throughout US media due to their uncensored coverage of the US assault on both countries.
Yet outrage over these incidents was relatively calm and muted. No international business deals were threatened, no major governments threatened sanctions, these attacks didn’t dominate the news cycle for weeks on end and were instead seen as “business as usual”. Some will argue that sure, many of these incidents occurred in war-zones, believing that somehow justifies the targeting of journalists. Article 79 of Protocol 1 of the Geneva Convention states explicit protections for both civilians and journalists, rendering it an international crime to target journalists, even during a time of war. With that in mind, once again, where has the outrage been for such crimes committed by the US? These attacks happen in zones of conflict or war, but are no less horrifying or in any way justifiable.
If anything, I feel that the reason this has garnered so much attention is because it’s forcing the population at large to face something that normally happens behind closed doors, out of site of cameras and CCTV footage. A dozen civilians killed in a US strike in Yemen is nothing more than another news story that is quickly glossed over because they’re “over there,” “people die in war,” and they’re easy to quickly forget. There may also be an element of American Exceptionalism in play here, where we as a country can posture as being a nation of good people, genuinely disgusted at such a blatant act of repression and barbarism carried out by such an evil, repressive monarchy! If we focus on other’s problems long enough, it’s much easier to bury or excuse our own. An airstrike in which journalists “happen” to be killed seems easier to explain away than a 15-man hit-squad entering a building and trying to disappear someone quietly, I suppose.
I also can’t help but feel that there’s also an element of predatory entertainment in all of this - an international mystery involving major world powers and a single journalist out to expose the truth, only to be silence by a major foreign power in a tale of international intrigue and espionage! It’s like something out of a film, playing out right in front of us.
Whatever the case, I remain vexed. Khashoggi’s death is a highly upsetting matter worthy of international outrage, but so were the murders of Ahmed Abu Hussein, of Yaser Murtaja, of Tareq Ayyoub, and of the dozens of other journalists killed by the actions of the US or US allies. I’m not asking for people to stop caring or paying attention to the murder of Khashoggi, but rather to remain vigilant and express this same level of outrage and concern for any and all journalists killed by a government, especially our own. Despite my hopes that the truth about Khashoggi’s murder comes to light and the government of Saudi Arabia is held accountable, it’s only a matter of time before they find a scapegoat or excuse the death away as a “tragic accident” and the outrage fades.