I have been writing about the scandal of our foreign policy partnering with Saudi Arabia for years. I have warned that Saudi Arabia is a evil empire that has been committing human rights abuses at home and responsible for atrocities in their region. As such, news that Turkey (another notoriously un-democratic player in the Middle East), has fingered the House of Saud for the death of an American journalist, was not unexpected.
Jamal Khashoggi, a reporter for the Washington Post entered the Saudi Embassy on October 2nd, reportedly for the purpose of obtaining some documents to facilitate his marriage to fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. Turkish authorities are reporting that they possess evidence that Saudi Arabia fielded a 15 member team of government operatives assigned to terminate Khashoggi and further that they have information, consisting of audio and video evidence indicating that Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate.
Turkish daily, Sabah reports that the “interrogation, torture and killing were audio recorded and sent to both his phone and to iCloud” and the recording furnishes, “persuasive and gruesome evidence” of Khashoggi’s death at the hands of Saudi agents.
Reaction from president Donald Trump has been contradictory. On one hand Trump told reporters that he would personally call Saudi Arabia’s King Mohammad Bin Salman soon about “the terrible situation in Turkey”. On the other, Trump brushed off questions about whether the killing would affect arms sales from the United States to Saudi Arabia. This, not human rights or standing up to dictators, actually is the central calculus of the Trump administration’s posture with regard to the incident. Trump puts it in these terms:
“We don’t like it even a little bit. But whether or not we should stop $110billion from being spent in this country – knowing they have … two very good alternatives. That would not be acceptable to me. I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country – they are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country.”
Among the topics that Khashoggi had been covering in recent months that triggered Mohammed Bin Salman’s wrath, had been the kingdom’s killing of civilian non-combatants in neighboring Yemen. Such reporting caused Khashoggi to be identified as an enemy of the state, which customarily leads to such individuals to be targeted for death.
Adding a layer of complication to the matter of hand, is the fact that the United States and the United Kingdom have been partners with the Saudi coalition (U.A.E., Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Sudan, Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt), providing assistance in command and control plus intelligence, logistical support and weapons in the attacks in Yemen.
King Salman takes no pains to masquerade that he has ordered the Saudi military and their coalition partners to specifically target children in order to terrorize Yemeni citizens. After one of the most recent attacks in August – the massacre in Yemen’s western coastal province of Hudaydah, of more than two dozen children, Salman is reported by a witness of having stated:
“Do not care about international criticism. We want to leave a big impact on the consciousness of Yemeni generations. We want their children, women and even their men to shiver whenever the name of Saudi Arabia is mentioned.”
By any objective measure and definition of international law, bin Salman is a war criminal. But he is a war criminal who is the head of state of a nation that Donald Trump has committed to selling $110 billion dollars of weapons to.
Included in those weapons sales are cluster bombs America and Great Britain have been supplying the Saudis with. The Convention on Cluster Munitions describes the effects of these weapons:
“Cluster munitions are unacceptable for two reasons Firstly, they have wide area effects and are unable to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Secondly, the use of cluster munitions leave behind large numbers of dangerous unexploded ordnance. Such remnants kill and injure civilians, obstruct economic and social development, and have other severe consequences that persist for years and decades after use.”
The Yemen Data Project documented in September of last year that over one-third of all Saudi-led bombings are hitting such civilian targets as private residences, shopping centers, schools and hospitals. In one attack in October, 2017, the Saudis and their partners bombed a packed funeral in Sana’a, killing at least 140 people.
In Yemen – the poorest country in the Middle East, no less than 4,773 civilians have been killed and 8,272 wounded since this campaign by the Saudis began.
Kristine Beckerle, who covers the region for The Hill, observes that:
“The war has driven Yemen, already the poorest nation in the Middle East, toward humanitarian catastrophe. Both the coalition and Houthi-Saleh forces have blocked or restricted critical relief supplies from reaching civilians. Seven million people face starvation, and cholera ravages parts of the country.”
Reporting another of many such incidents, the International Committee of the Red Cross described an attack this August, targeting a bus carrying children in Dahyan market in Saada province claiming scores of dead and critically wounded.
What about human rights within the Kingdom?
Saudi Arabia has been among the most repressive regimes in the world for decades. Free speech is considered by the Kingdom as a crime against the state and those identified as expressing views contrary to the interests of the monarchy are arrested without charges, jailed, tortured and held without access to legal counsel, indefinitely. Amnesty International cites many examples, one of which is described here:
In September Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, a human rights defender and founding member ACPRA, was detained to begin serving his sentence of eight years’ imprisonment to be followed by an eight-year travel ban and a ban from writing on social media, after his sentence was upheld by the court of appeal. He was convicted of, among other charges, “insulting the integrity of the judicial system and the judges” and “violating Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law” by “inciting public opinion against the rulers of this country and signing statements that were published online that call on people to demonstrate”.
The Kingdom’s “anti-terrorism” laws have been loosely defined, administrated and enforced in such a manner as to strike abject fear into its subjects. Academics, writers and journalists, as well as any person who espouses a religious view that runs contrary to the established Wahhabist Islamic fundamentalist doctrines subscribed to by the Kingdom, are subject to sanctions by government authorities. Protests are considered terrorism and are subject to punishment up to and including the death penalty.
In July of this year, Yussuf Ali al-Mushaikhass , father of two, was executed along with three other men for what Kingdom prosecutors termed “terror-related offenses” in connection with anti-government protests in the Eastern Province between 2011 and 2012.
A human rights activist from the Eastern province of Qatif, Israa al-Ghomgham, is now in a trial process following her arrest in 2015. She and her husband have been in detention for nearly 3 years.
In a hearing at Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in August, prosecutors accused the protesters of a string of charges including “participating in protests in the Qatif region,” “incitement to protest,” “chanting slogans hostile to the regime,” “attempting to inflame public opinion,” “filming protests and publishing on social media,” and “providing moral support to rioters.” Al Ghomgham and other defendants have been denied attorney representation.
Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns, told international media that, “The charges against Israa al-Ghomgam, which mostly relate to her peaceful participation in protests, are absurd and clearly politically motivated to silence dissent in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.”
In addition to al Ghomgham, a group of nine women – Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassema al-Sadah, and Amal al-Harbi, are being held in jeopardy of capital punishment. The ostensible crime? Protesting and conducting activism in opposition to the Kingdom’s ban on female drivers and the oppressive mandate that women cannot go about their daily lives without being accompanied by a “male guardian”.
Rachel Vogelstein, director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, told CBS News that, “Women have been executed before in Saudi Arabia, which has one of the highest rates of execution in the world”. She added that, “The fact of execution in and of itself — that’s clearly not what is unique about this. It is connecting the severity of this punishment to women’s activism.”
The Khashoggi incident is particularly vexing for the White House and the GOP Congress. Whereas, if the journalist was a resident of some other country, Europe, Austraiia, Japan – it would be a relatively minor item in international news; but the fact that Khashoggi is an American citizen is the aspect that puts the administration and Congress behind the political eight ball.
Republicans sense particular vulnerability on this development, given already negative public perceptions about America’s unique relationship to Saudi Arabia. “We need to figure out what the hell went on and get to the bottom of it,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). referring to the disappearance of Khashoggi. Ms. Ernst, up until now, has not been known for objecting to Saudi Arabia’s horrific human rights abuses.
Weapons sales “are certainly going to be a huge concern if” the Saudis are proven responsible for Khashoggi’s vanishing, said Colorado Senator Cory Gardner. Gardner added, “Saudi Arabia needs to clear this up immediately. Obviously, there’s a way that this can end very badly, and that is if Saudi is indeed responsible for this — as, at least reports I am seeing, would point to that direction.”
Critics suggest that the heightened concern appears to coincide with the upcoming mid-term elections. It’s hard to argue against that interpretation, given the history of the GOP brushing aside concerns about Saudi Arabia and their willingness to appropriate funds to the Kingdom that have obviously been employed to commit war crimes against their neighbors and the Saudi fingerprints on aid to brutal terrorists across the region.
The Saudi government is hosting an investment conference, Future Investment Initiative (FII), which was scheduled for later this month in Riyadh. Major news organizations worldwide (CNN, The Economist, CNBC, the New York Times and others), along with the International Monetary Fund, have backed out of the event, due to the Khashoggi incident.
Investment notable British billionaire Richard Branson said Thursday his Virgin Group will suspend discussions with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund over a planned $1 billion investment in the group’s space ventures. Bloomberg CEO Justin Smith is also canceling his travel arrangements.
Despite this, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, still plans to attend, telling reporters that Saudi Arabia has been a “good partner” to the United States.
The relatives of dead and maimed victims of this “good partner”, would likely not share Mnuchin’s views.