Even as Yemen has become the scene of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe Washington and London have given rock solid backing to the Saudis
At around 1.30pm last Tuesday, 2 October, the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi arrived with his fiancée at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul for a pre-arranged appointment to obtain a document he needed to marry her. She waited for him outside, and at past midnight she was still waiting. Khashoggi has not been seen since.
The Turkish authorities (in a country with its own terrible record of repressing journalists) have begun a criminal investigation, while multiple officials have briefed the media that they believe him to have been murdered, which the Saudis categorically deny. The row is a major embarrassment for the UK and US, the leading backers of Saudi Arabia under its new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Khashoggi had been close to the ruling family until he went into self-imposed exile last year, believing that power in Riyadh was becoming too centralised around bin Salman, and that already strict limits on political speech were being further curtailed to an excessive degree. His criticisms were relatively mild and reformist in nature, but were enough to make him a bête noire to the monarchy.
This is all the more striking because Mohammed bin Salman has made strenuous efforts to promote himself to the West as an agent of moderate liberalisation and reform. The most iconic manifestation of this was last September’s announcement that women in the kingdom would finally be allowed to drive. But what should also be remembered is that, at around the same time, the women who fought for this right were being variously imprisoned, intimidated into silence and smeared as foreign agents.
This came as part of a wider crackdown as hundreds of clerics, activists and businessmen were arrested. Scores of members of the Saudi elite were rounded up and subjected to a supposed “anti-corruption” shakedown, conducted without any recognisable due process, in the notorious Ritz-Carlton episode.
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