Was Khashoggi’s Death the Catalyst for Change in Saudi Arabia?

By Bryce Bower, Editor-in-Chief

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October sent shock-waves throughout the world.

The Crown Prince’s involvement was a big wake up call, and relations between the West and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were in a state of flux. Germany and France ceased all weapons sales to the country. Even before the journalists’ fate was known, and before any ties to the government were found, the economic repercussions were huge. CEOs and representatives from companies like Microsoft, Uber, CNN, the Economist, JP Morgan, Siemens, and many more pulled out of one of the biggest conferences in the world. The Future Investment Initiative was to be the Crown Prince’s chance to show how lucrative investing in Saudi Arabia would be. Instead, the big-name participants cancelled in droves, calling on the Saudi leaders to account for the whereabouts of Khashoggi.

But why did it take the death of a journalist to send a wake up call? And regardless of the news, President Trump went through with the $110 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia. Many have criticized this deal in light of Khashoggi’s death and the obvious human rights issues it brings up. But this doesn’t bother me nearly as much as what is going on in Yemen. Since Saudi Arabia’s “intervention” in Yemen in 2015, Save the Children reported that 85,000 children have starved to death. From October 2016 to December 2017, America sent $760 million of food and humanitarian assistance to Yemen.

What happens to the weapons that the US sells to Saudi Arabia? In a moment straight out of the movie Iron Man, reports started coming in that American bombs had been used in attacks on civilians in Yemen. An independent human rights group came forward with shrapnel collected from blast zones, and said these pieces of American made weapons had been collected since 2015. The weapons the US sells are being used on the very same people that the US is sending aid and relief to.

This next story hits a little closer to home. The New York Times reported that a researcher from the Human Rights Watch found a scrap engraved with a unique code to an American manufacturer. One who happens to produce that part of the guidance system in Tucson, Arizona. Thus comes the aptly named title, “From Arizona to Yemen: The Journey of an American Bomb.”

Saudi Arabia’s unique situation allows them to go unchecked. The world’s reliance on fossil fuels has put the Kingdom into a very powerful position, as it produced more than 12% of the world’s oil in 2016. Furthermore, its prime strategic and military position in the Middle East makes Saudi Arabia a very good ally to have. It is understandable and not at all irrational that the US would want to remain on good terms with a government whose policies they might not agree with. But, is there a line that the Crown can cross?

In 2015, Saudi Arabia beheaded more people than ISIS. If that isn’t crossing a line, what is? American politicians were quick to condemn public executions performed by ISIS and Iran, but were mysteriously quiet when it came to public execution in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government spoke out often against the brutality of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but it seems they felt state-sanctioned brutality was acceptable. “There seems to be a disconnect between Saudi Arabia’s condemnation of the practices of the Islamic State and the kingdom’s own state-sanctioned practices,” said Lina Khatib of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. In 2015, there were more than 100 beheadings in a six month period. Many of these were for the sale or purchase of drugs, for sorcery, or for adultery. Not quite unlike ISIS, who, for example, executed an archaeologist for idolatry.

Although the Saudi government may be up to some nefarious things, it is important to make a distinction between the people and their leaders. It goes without saying that stereotyping is harmful, and in no way do I suggest that the regular Saudi Arabian supports what the monarchy has done. If Saudi citizens were to protest against the government or try to hold the Crown accountable for misdeeds, they may meet the same fate as one Nimr Al-Nimr.

An article by The Guardian outlined how the Shia Sheikh was instrumental in the 2011-2012 uprising in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi uprising came as an aftershock to the Arab Spring which rocked countries like Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Lybia in 2010. Sheikh Nimr led some of these uprisings, adamant that the people use “the roar of the word,” and not the roar of weapons. He was known for speaking out against injustice and oppression, and his words got him beheaded alongside a group of Al-Qaeda terrorists. This is how calls for democracy have been dealt with in the past, and it is a clear message to anyone daring to challenge the Throne.

So, to answer my own question: was Khashoggi’s murder the catalyst for a changing Saudi Arabia? I would say, “not yet.” Politics and history are incredibly complex in the Middle East, and I don’t claim to be anywhere near an expert. But I believe the financial pressures put upon Saudi Arabian business and the slow shift to renewable energy will eventually lead to a change in Saudi Arabia. Something will have to give. On the list of global income inequality, Saudi Arabia is ranked the 36th highest – as measured by its Gini coefficient. (The US is 39th on that list, but that’s a different topic.)

The world saw a lot of journalists killed last year. Their fight for transparency was admirable, and sends a clear message to us as well. Don’t be afraid of who may try to silence you; stand up for what you believe in.

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