Khashoggi paid the price for being a ‘different Saudi’

And the world failed him and his dream by welcoming back those who brutally silenced him.

Khashoggi Turkey Reuters
People attend a symbolic funeral prayer for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the courtyard of Fatih mosque in Istanbul, Turkey on November 16, 2018 [File: Huseyin Aldemir/Reuters]

Since Jamal Khashoggi disappeared on October 2, 2018, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Saudi authorities have continuously changed their narrative of what happened. From claiming that he left alive and well, through asserting he got into a “fistfight”, to insisting he was the victim of a “rogue operation”, Riyadh has been unable to present a convincing, coherent explanation of what exactly happened that day in the consulate.

As gruesome details of his murder leaked to Turkish media and international outrage grew, attempts were made to discredit the prominent journalist. He was called a “Muslim Brotherhood member” and an Islamist – two labels which in the past have successfully muffled international criticism of political violence in the Arab world.

But the problem is that Khashoggi was neither. In fact, he was close to the Saudi royal family. Among different positions he occupied, he served as a media aide to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of the Saudi intelligence.

While maintaining close links to the House of Saud, Khashoggi also displayed a persistent, almost obstinate penchant for challenging the establishment, albeit without crossing certain limits.

In 2003, shortly after starting his job at Al-Watan newspaper, he published an article titled “The individual and the homeland are more important than Ibn Taymiyya”, referring to the 14th-century ultra-orthodox theologian who is considered one of the fore-fathers of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam which Saudi Arabia has officially espoused. He lost his job over this piece.

In 2007, he came back to the newspaper only to be forced to resign again three years later after publishing another op-ed displeasing the religious authorities. This is when he was approached by Prince al-Waleed bin Talal to head a new media project launched under the umbrella of his media empire which was meant to “break the mould” in Arab media. When it was launched in 2015, it indeed “broke the mould” by running an interview with a Bahraini opposition leader and as a result, got shut down almost immediately.

A couple of months later, Khashoggi wrote in his column for Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper: “I like the atmosphere of freedom, we have to preserve it, and I’m happy the government of my country is doing so […] I want to practice freedom, think freely and write freely.”

Khashoggi continued to write boldly, trying to preserve whatever limited freedom of expression existed in the kingdom. In 2016, after the government, under the leadership of then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), released its Vision 2030 plan to divest from oil and encourage economic and social development, he wrote a series of articles called the The 2030 vision of the Saudi citizen.

In each piece, he outlined demands ordinary Saudis have regarding job opportunities, education, health, freedom of speech, etc and called on the government to engage the Saudi population instead of imposing reforms from the top down.

It was this indirect call for a democratic process that touched a raw nerve in the Saudi establishment. Khashoggi increasingly felt pressure to keep silent.

In his last column for Al-Hayat, published in September 2017 and titled “I am Saudi, but different“, he criticised the culture of exclusion of ideas and people deemed “different” and called for accepting “diversity and the right of people to disagree”. That same month he left Saudi Arabia never to return.

Over the following year, Khashoggi continued to write tirelessly and speak his mind about his dream of a Saudi Arabia where the “atmosphere of freedom” and the “right of people to disagree” are respected. He never attacked directly the House of Saud; instead, he worded his criticism as advice, rather than condemnation. He wanted to see change and reform from within the existing regime.

But others did not. On October 2, 2018, Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and was swiftly attacked, killed and dismembered. The whereabouts of his body remain unknown.

And since then, 365 days have passed without justice for his murder. The Saudi authorities have skirted around calls from his loved ones, Saudi activists, international civil society and member states at the United Nations Human Rights Council to hold those responsible for his murder to account.

Riyadh has not only failed to take serious steps to uncover the full truth regarding this brutal crime but has also increased its crackdown on dissent.

Dozens of women’s rights activists continue to languish in detention, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Hatoon al-Fassi and others. Earlier this year, the Saudi authorities arrested two more activists – Nouf Abdelaziz and Mayaa al-Zahrani.

Reports have emerged of the horrible abuse that political prisoners in Saudi prisons have suffered, including sexual harassment, torture and threats of death. Meanwhile, the carnage in Yemen has continued, with millions starving and the death toll reaching 100,000.

Saudi authorities have thus demonstrated they have the capacity and will to repress and kill with impunity inside and outside their borders.

So, what will it take to hold the Saudi regime accountable for the death of Khashoggi? In her June 2019 report on the murder of the journalist, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Agnes Callamard, said: “[Khashoggi’s] killing was the result of elaborate planning involving extensive coordination and significant human and financial resources. It was overseen, planned and endorsed by high-level officials. It was premeditated.”

Only heavy international pressure for a complete and open investigation could uncover the truth and deliver justice. But so far, the international community has failed in this regard.

In March, during the 40th Session of the United Nation Human Rights Council, Iceland led 36 member states in condemning Khashoggi’s killing and called for a transparent trial of the 15 officials implicated.

Six months later, in September, when Australia led a statement at the UNHRC’s 42nd session, 14 member states who previously signed on in March, refused to do so again.

It appears that after the initial shock, which caused governments and companies to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia, slowly but surely they have gone back to business as usual.

Waning international condemnation for Saudi atrocities points to the “slap on the wrist” diplomacy increasingly deployed to address human rights atrocities in the face of geopolitical interests.

These economic interests drive member states to at best avert their eyes or at worst actively participate in the white-washing public relations campaign that Crown Prince Mohammed has been rolling out.

Over the past year, the Saudi government has been welcomed back to various international forums. Saudi Arabia continues to serve as a member of the UN Human Rights Council and it has assumed the presidency for the next G20 summit (which ironically includes a focus area on women’s empowerment). On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) session, MBS’s Misk Foundation also organised an event with the UN Youth Envoy.

The reluctance of governments around the world to take sustained diplomatic action against the Saudi government has undermined the global campaign to deliver justice for Khashoggi’s murder

Fortunately, human rights activists have not forgotten the brutal murder of Khashoggi and the gross injustice Saudi activists continue to suffer. Even as UN member states choose to close their eyes to these crimes, they will not rest until justice is served.

The co-author of this article is a Saudi activist who has asked not to be named due to fear for her and her family’s safety.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.