NICHOLAS KRISTOF: If a prince murders a journalist, that's not a hiccup
Posted October 13, 2018 11:49 a.m. EDT
Updated October 14, 2018 7:12 a.m. EDT
EDITOR'S NOTE: Nicholas Kristof has been an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times since 2001, and was a longtime foreign correspondent before that. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur.
The reports about Jamal Khashoggi, the missing Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor, whom I’ve known for more than 15 years, grow steadily more sickening.
Turkey claims to have audiotape of Saudi interrogators torturing Jamal and killing him in the Saudi Consulate. None of this is confirmed, and we still don’t know exactly what happened; we all pray that Jamal will still reappear. But increasingly it seems that the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS, orchestrated the torture, assassination and dismemberment of an American-based journalist using diplomatic premises in a NATO country.
That is monstrous, and it’s compounded by the tepid response from Washington. President Donald Trump is already rejecting the idea of responding to such a murder by cutting off weapons sales. Trump sounds as if he believes that the consequence of such an assassination should be a hiccup and then business as usual.
Frankly, it’s a disgrace that Trump administration officials and American business tycoons enabled and applauded MBS as he imprisoned business executives, kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister, rashly created a crisis with Qatar, and went to war in Yemen to create what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis there. Some eight million Yemenis on the edge of starvation there don’t share this bizarre view that MBS is a magnificent reformer.
Trump has expressed “great confidence” in MBS and said that he and King Salman “know exactly what they are doing.” Jared Kushner wooed MBS and built a close relationship with him — communicating privately without involving State Department experts — in ways that certainly assisted MBS in his bid to consolidate power for himself.
The bipartisan cheers from Washington, Silicon Valley and Wall Street fed his recklessness. If he could be feted after kidnapping a Lebanese prime minister and slaughtering Yemeni children, why expect a fuss for murdering a mere journalist?
MBS knows how to push Americans’ buttons, speaking about reform and playing us like a fiddle. His willingness to sound accepting of Israel may also be one reason Trump and so many Americans were willing to embrace MBS even as he was out of control at home.
In the end, MBS played Kushner, Trump and his other American acolytes for suckers. The White House boasted about $110 billion in arms sales, but nothing close to that came through. Saudi Arabia backed away from Trump’s Middle East peace deal. Financiers salivated over an initial public offering for Aramco, the state-owned oil company, but that keeps getting delayed.
The crackdown on corruption is an example of MBS’ manipulation and hypocrisy. It sounded great, but MBS himself has purchased a $300 million castle in France, and a $500 million yacht — and he didn’t buy them by scrimping on his government salary.
In fairness, he did allow women to drive. But he also imprisoned the women’s rights activists who had been campaigning for the right to drive. Saudi Arabia even orchestrated the detention abroad of a women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, and her return in handcuffs. She turned 29 in a Saudi jail cell in July, and her marriage has ended. She, and not the prince who imprisons her, is the heroic reformer.
Just last month in London, unidentified Saudi men, one wearing an earpiece, attacked a Saudi dissident named Ghanem al-Dosari, who has mocked MBS as “the tubby teddy bear.” As they punched Dosari, they cursed him for criticizing the Saudi royal family.
“MBS’ message to Saudis is clear: I will shut you up no matter where you are and no matter what laws I have to break to do it,” Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch told me.
The crown prince showed his sensitivity and unpredictability in August when Canada’s foreign ministry tweeted concern about the jailing of Saudi women’s rights activists. Saudi Arabia went nuts, canceling flights, telling 8,300 Saudi students to leave Canada, expelling the Canadian ambassador and withdrawing investments. All for a tweet.
Western companies should back out of MBS’ Future Investment Initiative conference later this month. That includes you, Mastercard, McKinsey, Credit Suisse, Siemens, HSBC, BCG, EY, Bain and Deloitte, all listed on the conference website as partners of the event.
We need an international investigation, perhaps overseen by the United Nations, of what happened to Jamal. In the United States, we also must investigate whether Saudis bought influence with spending that benefited the Trump family, such as $270,000 spent as of early 2017 by a lobbying firm for Saudi Arabia at the Trump hotel in Washington. The Washington Post reported that Saudi bookings at Trump Chicago increased 169 percent from the first half of 2016 to the first half of this year, and that the general manager of a Trump hotel in New York told investors that revenues rose partly because of “a last-minute visit to New York by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.”
If Saudi Arabia cannot show that Jamal is safe and sound, NATO countries should jointly expel Saudi ambassadors and suspend weapons sales. The United States should start an investigation under the Magnitsky Act and stand ready to impose sanctions on officials up to MBS.
America can also make clear to the Saudi royal family that it should find a new crown prince. A mad prince who murders a journalist, kidnaps a prime minister and starves millions of children should never be celebrated at state dinners, but instead belongs in a prison cell.
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