Khashoggi's family forgives his killers, but will the world forget the Saudi scandal?

Khashoggi's family forgives his killers, but will the world forget the Saudi scandal?

The saga of the murdered Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi looks as though it is coming to an end. Early Friday morning in Riyadh, his son, Salah, tweeted: “... whoever pardons and makes reconciliations, his reward lies with God. ...Thus, we ... announce that we forgive those who killed our father.” 

The timing of the tweet “on this virtuous night of this holy month” — the fasting month of Ramadan, which ends this weekend with the festival of Eid — fits in with Islamic tradition. From an American point of view, on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend, some may think of it as burying bad (controversial) news. Perhaps coincidentally, the conclusion of the trial of the Saudi security team that murdered Khashoggi in the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2018 was announced Dec. 23, just before the Christmas holiday.

The Khashoggi family’s public pardon likely will mean the end of the death sentences for five Saudi security agents. Another three members of the team received prison terms totaling 24 years. In the Saudi legal tradition, names of accused are not revealed, but the U.S., European Union and Turkey have sanctioned a total of 23 individuals. The five sentenced to death are thought to include the team leader, the pathologist who carved up Khashoggi’s body with a bone saw, and the body double who dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes so “he” could be seen exiting the consulate and vanishing in the streets of the city.

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Unlike fiction, there remain loose ends in the story, of which the main one is, “Where is the body?” It does not seem that Khashoggi’s son made knowing this detail a condition of the family’s pardon, although in Islamic tradition a proper burial is important. (The most plausible explanation is that the journalist’s body parts were incinerated in the backyard oven of the Saudi consul-general.)

The Khashoggi story may not be front-page news in the U.S. any longer, except in the Washington Post for which he was a contributing columnist, but the issue is still divisive. A narrative persists of Khashoggi not being a real journalist, being an Islamist and an acquaintance of Osama bin Laden, and being opposed to the changes that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aka MbS, was trying to introduce in the kingdom. 

After a range of excuses  — including that of the body being rolled up in a carpet and taken away by an unidentified Turkish contractor — a Saudi official investigation eventually concluded that the killing was “not premeditated” and was a rogue operation, hence the trial of those directly involved.

Jamal Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting for him outside the consulate while he was murdered, is unlikely to be as forgiving of his killers as his son. She tweeted Friday that “no one has the right to pardon his killers.” Ms. Cengiz has been conducting an energetic campaign, most recently trying to block the Saudi sovereign wealth fund from purchasing an English soccer team. Such an investment fits in with MbS’s “Vision 2030” plan for diversifying away from reliance on oil. Whether Ms. Cengiz is successful or not, that “Vision” looks increasingly likely to be slipping by a decade or more because of the coronavirus pandemic and this spring’s low oil prices.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.