In a panel discussion titled “The Khashoggi Affair and Saudi Arabia’s War Against Dissent,” Stanford University scholars examined the context for of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and implications of his murder for U.S.-Saudi relations. Organized by the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy (ARD) and moderated by Freeman Spogli Institute and Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Larry Diamond, the panel, dated November 6, 2018, featured Janine Zacharia, the Carlos Kelly McClatchy Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Communication, and Hesham Sallam Associate-Director of ARD and Research Scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
Before introducing the panel, Diamond discussed Jamal Khashoggi’s journalistic contributions and advocacy for freedom in the Middle East. He also strongly asserted that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (commonly known as MBS), ordered Khashoggi’s murder in an attempt to stifle media opposition towards his regime. He noted that Khashoggi advocated peaceful political reform that would make Saudi Arabia more prosperous and tolerant. In a brief video filmed during Khashoggi’s visit to Stanford last year, the Saudi journalist provided a measured critique of MBS, remarking that the prince’s leadership was well-intentioned, but too impulsive.
Diamond, Zacharia and Sallam had each met and spoken to Jamal Khashoggi. According to Zacharia, he provided an invaluable perspective on Saudi Arabia for journalists, and his death at the hands of MBS’s operatives in Istanbul sets a dangerous new standard for the treatment of journalists and media officials by authoritarian governments.
Zacharia and Sallam criticized the Trump administration’s response to the killing, and the president’s failure to unequivocally condemn Khashoggi’s apparent murder or to hold MBS accountable. Zacharia said she worried the United States, under President Trump, may no longer be willing to come to the aid of American journalists abroad. Sallam observed that Trump’s tepid denunciation of the killing—in which he declared Khashoggi’s disappearance to be “the worst cover-up in history”—will only encourage other Arab autocrats to silence dissenters with greater subtlety and enthusiasm. The only appropriate response, according to Diamond, is for the American government to freeze MBS’s assets and ban him from entering the United States. Otherwise Saudi Arabia will interpret American passivity as a license to commit further human rights abuses without fear of punishment.
The panelists also framed Khashoggi’s death within the context of Saudi Arabia’s domestic political scene. For many observers, the assassination of a well-known journalist seems at odds with the progressive image of Saudi Arabia that MBS has recently attempted to propagate, specifically through highly publicized reforms and cultural initiatives. Women may now be able to drive, and Saudi Vision 2030 may offer a blueprint for the restructuring of the Saudi economy (and even encourage cross-cultural exchange with the West) but these reforms, Sallam argued, were merely cosmetic. Sallam emphasized that there are still no real checks on MBS’s power, the basic liberties of the Saudis remain severely limited, and the Saudi regime has caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises through its military campaign against Yemen. Diamond prefaced these observations by noting that Saudi Arabia is a hugely populous country and a significant regional power in the Middle East, but if predictions hold true, they will also run out of oil by 2030. Therefore, despite the entrenchment of monarchical power and a façade of social progress, Saudi Arabia is indeed facing an impending crisis of identity and economic uncertainty that will induce extreme action and response on the global stage. Khashoggi’s killing anticipates future turmoil as Saudi Arabia continues to disregard international laws and norms in an earnest—and dangerous—attempt to assert its power domestically and regionally.