Tue | Oct 23, 2018

Editorial | Mr Trump and Saudi impunity

Published:Sunday | October 14, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The case of Jamal Khashoggi highlights the growing impunity with which the ruling Saudis conduct their business, including, it appears, the brazen murder of their critics. But it should also be further warning that with the moral licence afforded by the America of Donald Trump, sacred institutions, including the press, that could once count on, at least, the moral support of the United States are no longer guaranteed that insulation against a ravaging of their freedom.

Mr Khashoggi is, if he is still alive, which is unlikely, a prominent Saudi intellectual, journalist and critic of the Saudi Arabian government, including the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He wrote columns for The Washington Post, one of America's great newspapers, and campaigned for democracy in his country. He resides in the USA.

A fortnight ago, Mr Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to deal with documents necessary for his marriage to his Turkish fiancÈe. Security camera footage shows him entering the building. There are none of him leaving, although the Saudis claim he left. No one has seen him since, including his fiancÈe, who was waiting outside. The Turks believe that he was murdered, his body mutilated and spirited away. He, in that event, would join the more than two dozen journalists murdered so far this year.

The Khashoggi affair is a growing geopolitical issue, notwithstanding the muted response of the Trump presidency, even in the face of congressional pressure for the USA to hold Saudi Arabia to account. A significant issue is what the Trump administration knew in relation to dangers faced by Mr Khashoggi, whether he was warned of them, and how the administration's attitude might have been shaped by national economic interests and the personal ones of the Trump family.

 

BACKUP PLAN FOR RENDITION

 

The Washington Post reported that US intelligence intercepted Saudi plans, sanctioned by Crown Prince bin Salman, to lure Mr Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia for his arrest. There is speculation that his capture at the consulate might have been backup plan for his rendition.

Whatever happened inside the consulate, knowledgeable Americans point out, there is a 2015 directive obligating US intelligence agencies to warn persons who might be kidnapped, injured or killed, even if these persons are not US citizens. It is not clear whether Mr Khashoggi was cautioned and disregarded the warning, or if the intelligence agencies did not feel that information reached the level to forewarn him of harm. Or, worse, could the intelligence agencies have been prevailed upon not to warn Mr Khashoggi?

Of the United States of a different era and of a different presidency, this newspaper, in relation to the latter point, would insist no. Jeffersonian ideals of the press and the American tradition of freedom and democracy were too deeply ingrained in the US body politic. Such notions of the United States, however, have weakened.

On August 16, this newspaper joined more than 200 in the United States lamenting Mr Trump's attempts at delegitimising the press and of actions falling just short of inciting violence against journalists. He brands mainstream reporters purveyors of "fake news", meaning news he doesn't like, and "enemies of the people". These characterisations are in concert with the preferences of authoritarians around the world, with whose style and inclinations Mr Trump would probably fully emulate, if possible - Duterte of the Philippines, Egypt's el-Sisi, Hungary's Orban, Poland's Duda and, of course, bin Salman.

The Saudis bring something else to the table highly cherished by Donald Trump - the country's and their personal wealth. There is also the personal and, some speculate, economic relationship between bin Salman and Mr Trump's son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is buying US$110 billion in arms from the USA, which Mr Trump says he is not inclined to jeopardise.

It is in the haze of this cocktail that the USA has essentially turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia's impunity in the neighbourhood, like its economic blockade of Qatar; its bombings of Yemen; and now the Khashoggi affair. We, in this neighbourhood, have to tell Mr Trump that such behaviour is unacceptable, while we stand by and assert our support for multilateralism.