Seven weeks ago, Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Upon arriving, he was reportedly attacked by an assassination squad sent directly on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi assassins allegedly murdered him, dismembered his body with a bone saw, reportedly dissolved his corpse in acid, and then began an absurdly incompetent coverup laced with ever-shifting lies.
President Trump is far from blameless in this grisly affair. He has emboldened autocrats by praising brutal regimes at every opportunity. He has encouraged violence against journalists. And his compromising financial ties to the Saudi regime made him an easy mark for the crown prince, who rightly calculated that Trump never loses sight of his wallet but can never seem to find his morals.
Yesterday, Trump explicitly doubled down on his support for the Saudis, issuing the diplomatic equivalent of a “so what” shrug in response to the brazen assassination of an American resident who worked for one of the most respected newspapers in the United States. Trump’s message was unmistakable: If you directly enrich the president, and buy enough weapons, you can get away with murder.
That should not, and must not, be the message that the United States sends to the world in the aftermath of the Khashoggi assassination. If Trump won’t stand up to the Saudi regime on behalf of the U.S. government, the private sector — and the consumers who fuel it — should do so instead.
Saudi Arabia is a brutal, barbaric monarchy. The regime beheads people for protesting, for being gay, for blasphemy, for minor drug offenses and even for “witchcraft.” Before Khashoggi, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi criticized the Saudi regime, and for that “crime” was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. The Saudi human rights record reads like a grisly “Game of Thrones” novel, set not in a fantasy dystopia, but in the real world of 2018.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has committed alleged war crimes. The regime has killed countless civilians, bombing hospitals, markets and school buses. They have used cluster bombs, which are largely banned under a widely adopted international treaty precisely because they kill so many civilians. They have tortured detainees, used child soldiers as young as eight and committed rape.
They have committed those alleged war crimes with the help of American-made weapons, British weapons and logistical support from the U.S. military.
America’s friendship with the Saudi regime has long been a dark cloud obscuring that sometimes-hypocritical Reagan-esque ideal that the United States is a “shining city on a hill,” a beacon that supports freedom and democracy in the rest of the world. But at least that hypocrisy created uncertainty: The Saudis (and the rest of the world’s autocrats) previously had to wonder what would happen if they murdered a journalist working for a U.S.-based newspaper. Now they don’t have to wonder. They know. They do not have to fear a diplomatic backlash from the White House. Trump will praise them.
But the Saudis’ real fear isn’t short-lived U.S. sanctions or a temporary cessation of arms deals. What the kingdom really fears is becoming an international outcast, finally being viewed as what it is: a pariah state that finances terrorism, abuses human rights, commits war crimes and oppresses women. Because once that perception becomes pervasive among the Western public, businesses that care about their public image cannot be seen as supporting such a cruel, indefensible regime.
Unfortunately, the arms trade and the oil industry aren’t going to be swayed by moralistic consumers. Thankfully, however, Saudi Arabia’s future economic strategy is predicated on broadening out from oil and weapons into a diversified portfolio of investments that can be swayed by public opinion and consumer outrage. That’s where we should fight back.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has bought a $3.5 billion stake in Uber, a $2 billion stake in Tesla and $400 million in Magic Leap, to name a few. Those companies are now tainted by blood money. That reputational risk is why a few brave executives, like Richard Branson, have distanced themselves from Riyadh’s murderous monarchy. (Branson suspended negotiations over a $1 billion investment in Virgin’s space companies.) Those laudable forerunners should pave the way for a deluge of divestment from the kingdom. Every major company in America should now be asked whether they receive Saudi money so that American consumers can make informed choices.
Then, to counteract Trump’s depraved message, consumers should send their own message: that doing business with a man who brazenly murders journalists will come at a serious cost.
Because the U.S. government treats Saudi Arabia as a staunch ally, business executives, media personalities, celebrities and public intellectuals have long thought of glitzy conferences in Riyadh as a safe option, one beyond reproach. Because Jamal Khashoggi died, that perception must die too.
Trump has betrayed America’s bedrock values because of his wallet. But we all have wallets too, and it’s time to make sure that the money that comes out of them doesn’t go into the coffers of a regime that commits war crimes and murders journalists. That’s what Mohammed bin Salman really fears. We should make his nightmare come true.