April 02, 2020
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Saudi Arabia can’t escape Jamal Khashoggi’s shadow

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Last October, a few days after the murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, I found myself in the thicket of TV cameras outside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Standing a few dozen feet from the scene of the crime, I marveled at the international attention being devoted to the killing of a member of my professional tribe — and wondered how long this interest would last.

A few weeks, I guessed, maybe a couple of months; my professional cynicism doesn’t allow for much optimism.

For journalists, murder is an occupational hazard. In the year of Khashoggi’s murder alone, 53 journalists were killed, at least 34 of them as a direct consequence of their work. Only a handful of those murders made the international headlines — the four Capital Gazette journalists shot dead by a gunman in Annapolis, Raed Fares of Radio Fresh, assassinated by the regime in Syria — and even then, just for a few days. I reckoned the Khashoggi killing would fade from the collective memory in the same way.

It’s a safe bet that the people responsible for the killing, from those who ordered and planned it to those responsible for its execution and the botched cover-up that followed, were hoping that the world would quickly forget another dead journalist. Their professional cynicism allows for optimism.

Yet that one murder refuses to fade away. When I returned to the consulate on the evening of the first anniversary of Khashoggi’s killing, there was another thicket of cameras. As I stood there, I used my phone to read about memorial events and demonstrations in Paris, Berlin and The Hague.

For journalists, this is a comfort. For the Saudi authorities, it is a continuing crisis: Khashoggi is Banquo’s Ghost, haunting the kingdom and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The specter of the murdered columnist has cast an ectoplasmic pall over efforts by the Saudi prince to deflect blame. A United Nations rapporteur assigned to investigate Khashoggi’s murder reiterated Monday that Prince Mohammed “has a responsibility in relationship to the killing.” The CIA believes he gave the order.

Last week, MBS — as the prince is commonly known — tried again to change the narrative. In an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” he allowed that, since the killing had taken place “on my watch,” he had responsibility. But he undercut his case by arguing that he could not know what all 3 million of his government’s officials were doing at any given time.

The questioning about Khashoggi must be especially frustrating for MBS at a moment when Saudi Arabia badly needs the world’s attention — and sympathy. Less than a month has passed since the kingdom’s largest oil installations were disabled by attacks, the presumed handiwork of Iran. And in less than a month, his pet project — the initial public offering of Saudi Aramco, potentially the world’s most valuable firm — will be put to the test. It also clouds the recent flurry of economic and social reforms MBS has instigated.

If the prince is given to introspection, he might ask himself why the world won’t let him be rid of this meddlesome journalist. He can, if he is so inclined, pick from any number of explanations: the brazenness of the killing; the ineptitude of the killers; the doggedness of the U.S. media, and especially of The Washington Post; the outrage of the American Congress; the opportunism of Turkish authorities, and especially of MBS’ bete noire, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

He might wonder, too, whether the steadfast support of President Doanld Trump is the boon it first appeared to be — or if the endorsement is more of a curse.

MBS could also ponder whether it is possible, at this late date, to set things right: by allowing the trial of 11 suspects to take place under international monitoring, and by adding to their ranks his major domo, Saud al-Qahtani.

Or, Mohammed can pin his hopes to the passage of more time, and bet that the world will not be asking about Jamal Khashoggi a year from now. For all my professional cynicism, I wouldn’t be optimistic about that.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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