By now, you have probably heard the tragic story of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Last week in Istanbul, the respected Washington Post contributor, U.S. resident and moderate Saudi critic entered the Saudi consulate to pick up a document on the eve of his wedding.
Gruesome reports from Turkish authorities assert that Khashoggi was tortured and murdered within the consulate while his fiancee waited outside.
U.S. intelligence intercepts also reportedly corroborate allegations that the order came from the highest levels of the Saudi royal court. And in Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t get any higher than the Kingdom’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, commonly referred to as MBS.
U.S. media pundits and President TrumpDonald TrumpJury in Jussie Smollett trial begins deliberations Pence says he'll 'evaluate' any requests from Jan. 6 panel Biden's drug overdose strategy pushes treatment for some, prison for others MORE have continuously praised MBS, crafting an image of a secular, moderate reformer looking to push Saudi Arabia into the “future,” an image supported by a host of lifestyle reforms within the Kingdom.
If confirmed, however, the tragedy of Jamal Khashoggi raises the curtain once and for all on MBS’ true nature, casting a light on the reality that Saudi’s young authoritarian leader has been violating human rights since the very beginning and has been emboldened by President Trump in the process.
When MBS first gained power, the unprecedented ascension of a young prince keen to reform Saudi Arabia excited many in Washington who believed his rebuffing of tradition could mean real change in the Kingdom.
American pundits, like Thomas Friedman, who hailed MBS' reforms — naive at best or willfully ignorant at worst of the delicate political balance within the Kingdom — failed to recognize the implications of such drastic, rapid change.
In dismantling so many of the systems of seniority and religiosity that traditionally granted authority to the royal family, the crown prince created a power vacuum that could only be filled by repression — a crackdown on dissent that became immediately evident through a massive wave of arrests of Saudi elites and the very activists whose calls for reform MBS claimed to answer.
The crackdown went unmentioned by elites from Washington to New York to Silicon Valley, hoping that a uncompromising authoritarian could somehow be a progressive revolutionary at the same time.
To many within the Kingdom, MBS' success in pushing some positive reforms mitigated the growing repression: The religious police no longer patrolled malls, and movie theaters opened. The ban on women driving was lifted.
At the same time, however, MBS punished anyone who could claim their activism worked or pointed out where his policies fumbled.
Greater dissent only bred greater repression, creating a bizarre dichotomy wherein Saudi Arabia was at once becoming more livable for those willing to accept the changes in exchange for silence but unbearable to those who spoke out for real change.
Even in light of the Kingdom’s rising repression, however, Khashoggi’s disappearance represents a significant escalation in MBS’ crackdown on dissent, going so far as to reportedly torture and murder a U.S. resident entering a consulate in a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member country.
The act is a jarring and blatant violation of international law, yet MBS still felt empowered to give the order.
In a speech on Tuesday, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBriahna Joy Gray discusses US's handling of COVID-19 testing Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill MORE (I-Vt.) offered a source for that empowerment. He described a rising authoritarian axis, one emboldened by President Trump.
Sanders’ speech hit the nail on the head: President Trump’s relish in shattering democratic norms and privileging of arms sales over human lives has granted MBS a blank check to act with impunity, without fear of repercussions or accountability.
Like all those media pundits across the U.S., the Trump administration openly embraced MBS, despite all the ugliness. They pointed to MBS’ lifestyle reforms for justification, turning a blind eye to the Saudi government’s growing resume of human rights abuses and vicious crackdown on dissent.
With a blank check from Trump and silenced opposition within the Kingdom, there was nothing reining in the burgeoning authoritarian’s worst impulses.
Western admirers invited MBS to meet with government officials, business leaders and Hollywood executives. The U.S. failed to stand with Canada when it dared to speak out against MBS' arrests of female activists.
The crown prince’s war in Yemen devolved into the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, driving millions to famine, while the U.S., U.K., France and others blindly continue militarily supporting the slaughter.
Even now, when asked whether confirmation of Saudi’s hand in Khashoggi’s disappearance would trigger a halt in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, Trump responded, “What does that do for us? I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion, which is an all-time record, and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money.”
Besides exposing blatant moral bankruptcy, Trump’s statement proves just how any human rights violation, however gross, can be washed away for the right price.
For all our joking that Trump cozies up to dictators because he’s a wanna-be dictator himself, this president’s actions — whether with Saudi Arabia or his lavishing of praise on Vladimir Putin — empower the spread of authoritarianism around the world.
Piecemeal lifestyle reforms do not give authoritarians the right to act with impunity. If we’re not careful and do not band together in defense of global democratic values, we risk being infected as well by creeping authoritarianism in years to come.
Kate Kizer is the policy director at the Center for International Policy's Win Without War. She is an expert on U.S. foreign policy and democratization in the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @KateKizer.