But the brazen attempt to bury the highest-profile murder case in the past decade at the end of the year is almost more audacious than the crime itself, which took place midday on foreign soil, inside a diplomatic mission.
The timing is hardly a coincidence. The Saudis conveniently concluded the closed-door trial during the holiday season, when capacities in government and media are at their annual low. This also coincides with the U.S. media’s focus on the presidential impeachment and Senate trial. Meanwhile, critical Arabic-language media seems to have softened their Saudi coverage to accommodate widely speculated Qatar-Saudi rapprochement. These are all prime conditions facilitating the Saudi attempt to bury the Khashoggi murder heading into 2020.
The verdict is telling of how emboldened Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has become. The kingdom’s historically partial judiciary sentenced five low-ranking officials to death and three others to 24 years total in prison. The masterminds in the chain of command — former Saudi consul-general in Istanbul Mohammad al-Otaibi, former deputy intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri and MBS’s closest adviser Saud al-Qahtani — were all exonerated for “insufficient evidence.” All three were fired from their posts over the murder and named in the U.N. special rapporteur’s report. Otaibi and Qahtani were also sanctioned by the United States after the CIA and Treasury Department found them to be involved.
The verdict reflects MBS’s sense of invincibility after surviving the worst wave of criticism in the kingdom’s recent history. Not only does he feel immune from any accountability for the murder, but he is also now attempting to extend that immunity to his associates.
It is no secret that Qahtani is MBS’s de facto enforcer. About two months after Jamal had gone into self-imposed exile in September 2017, I was present for a call between Jamal and Qahtani that Jamal asked me to record. It was a short call, one minute and 42 seconds. Qahtani started the call by establishing his authority, indicating he was calling on behalf of MBS, who had asked him to thank Jamal for his tweets in support of the Saudi government announcing it would lift the driving ban on women. Qahtani told Jamal that the prince followed his work closely and was pleased to see the tweet.
Jamal quickly responded, “Please send my regards to his Highness and tell him that it is only my duty as a patriot to compliment the positive reforms taken by the government.” Jamal could have easily stopped there, capitalized on the rapport he just built with the most powerful man in the kingdom and asked for his son’s travel ban to be lifted, but he didn’t. He continued as his hand shook uncontrollably and his voice trembled, “and when there are transgressions, we will critique.”
Despite the overwhelming fear he was feeling, Jamal used the rest of the call to selflessly advocate for the release of political prisoners, intellectuals, writers and preachers. He named them hurriedly and pleaded for their release. Qahtani’s voice quickly turned aggressive, cutting Jamal off: “These are traitors, and a threat to national security.” Jamal challenged, “I can testify to their patriotism and love of country.” Qahtani frustratingly ended the call by saying, “The evidence will be revealed in due time.”
Social psychology explains that surviving an imminent fatal threat increases the survivor’s risk appetite and the sense of invincibility. This means that, emboldened by overcoming the fallout from the seemingly insurmountable atrocity, MBS, Qahtani and company will continue to push the limits of what they can get away with. Qahtani has already published a long comeback poem celebrating “promised victory.” He has mobilized a social media campaign singing his praises and a flattering feature on national television celebrating his acquittal.
Jamal’s murder did not happen in a vacuum. It was an ugly manifestation of all the crimes committed against the people of the Arab region since the Arab Spring and the utter lack of accountability that followed. Now, with such a blatant crime followed by stunning impunity, it begs the question: Moving forward, what more should dissidents expect from the crown prince and his cronies?
This is not just about the justice Jamal deserves, or even closure for his friends and family. This is also about deterrence, so another critic is not killed in London’s Hyde Park, abducted from a Toronto suburb or assaulted in a D.C. bar. When we seek justice and accountability, we are not seeking to avenge Jamal’s murder. We are attempting to secure an immediate future where we can live without constant fear of assassination and dismemberment.
If we close the book on the Khashoggi murder without proper accountability, it will no longer be an anomaly, but a new norm.