Iyad el-Baghdadi is an Arab writer and activist. He is the founder of the Kawaakibi Foundation, an Oslo-based organization.
After more than two years of a criminal and cynical coverup by the Trump administration, the Biden administration has unclassified the report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence of the murder of our fallen friend, the Saudi journalist and Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The two-page report didn’t contain exactly new information. What happened is already known: Jamal was lured into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he was murdered by a Saudi hit squad acting on the direct orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Jamal’s body was dismembered and his remains disappeared.
The report said the intelligence community reached its conclusion based on the total control MBS has over the kingdom, his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,” and the direct involvement in the murder of his senior aides and security officials.
But the significance of the report isn’t about what facts it adds but about what President Biden, who has pledged to push for accountability, should do next. No democracy can acknowledge such a heinous murder while also maintaining the status quo in its relationship with MBS’s Saudi Arabia, not least the United States, Saudi Arabia’s closest Western ally.
Which brings us to the important question: What does justice for Jamal look like?
Many advocates are calling for measures to punish MBS, including imposing Magnitsky-style targeted sanctions on the crown prince. There’s even been talk of signaling to the Saudi royal family that its own best future is best served if MBS does not become king. All of this is well and good — but narrowly focusing on punishing MBS does not do justice for Jamal.
Jamal was killed for daring to raise his voice in dissent and express himself freely. As a friend of Jamal, I have been frustrated by how much focus has been placed on the murder and the murderers, rather than on the victim, what he loved and what made him take such chances. Any response by the Biden administration that does not place free speech at the top of the agenda will miss the mark and risk repeating historical mistakes.
Before MBS’s rise, Saudi Arabia had one of the Arab world’s most vibrant public spheres, with people from across society discussing matters of public concern, mostly on Twitter. In March 2017, I wrote about this beautiful and inspiring phenomenon: Free expression online allowed Saudis to liberate themselves from imposed narratives and demand change from their government.
The election of Donald Trump allowed MBS to clamp down on this public sphere with brutal efficiency, arresting hundreds of people for essentially tweeting; Jamal’s own exile from Saudi Arabia came near the peak of this clampdown. MBS proceeded to replace the vibrancy and dynamism of this public sphere with government-produced propaganda pumped out relentlessly by thousands of coordinated disinformation accounts.
To get a sense of what Jamal cared about, consider what he did during his 13 months in exile before his murder: Besides founding a pro-democracy think tank (Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN), he collaborated with Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz to create an “online army” dubbed “the Bees” to counter Saudi government bots, a story well documented in Bryan Fogel’s recent documentary “The Dissident.” Jamal also collaborated with my team to establish a disinformation monitor and start a conversation with Twitter about cutting off the disinformation at the source. Jamal was obsessed with reclaiming social media platforms as a neutral space for free expression for Saudis.
On the flip side, most of MBS’s nefarious actions since 2017 were about clamping down on free speech — the September 2017 round of arrests in Saudi Arabia that helped him consolidate power, the May 2018 hack against Jeff Bezos (who owns The Post), the May 2018 arrests of women’s rights activists, and the Khashoggi murder itself. If there’s one thing that MBS really does not want, it’s freedom of expression for Saudis. This is where he should be hit.
Focusing on punishing dictators without assisting the societies they suppress risks repeating past U.S. mistakes in the Middle East. If you stop weapon sales to MBS, he can still obtain weapons from countries such as China and Russia; if you take away his ability to conduct operations in Yemen, he can still inflame a long-standing civil war using his significant disinformation capabilities. If you sanction him, it will be a blow to his power and prestige, but it will not remove him from power.
The best situation would be to facilitate the rise of internal checks on MBS. Ultimately, if the United States wants a future free from foreign interventions and forever wars in the Middle East, this starts with going from a paradigm of managing bad actors to one of encouraging the rise of strong societies that can move the region forward.
The United States must begin using its tremendous leverage with Saudi Arabia to secure the release of prisoners of conscience and the lifting of travel bans. It should then monitor closely if MBS arrests any newly released prisoners, especially if they dare take to Twitter (or Clubhouse, which is rapidly gaining ground) to express themselves freely.
Jamal gave his life for our right to free speech. For his sake, we must keep freedom of expression at the top of the agenda. A good future that honors his vision isn’t one where MBS is sanctioned but still oppressive. A good future is one where MBS is internally checked by free Saudis who are able to demand accountability from their government. To aim for anything less is to betray Jamal and his legacy.