by Abdulaziz Kilani
The UN’s extrajudicial executions investigator, Agnes Callamard, said on Wednesday that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) should be investigated for the October killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. There is “credible evidence” that MbS and other senior officials are liable for that killing, she said.
The UN report will undoubtedly put huge pressure on MbS. Despite continued denial of any knowledge regarding Khashoggi’s fate, the kingdom’s version of the story is now worthless. In the wake of the UN report, one question must be answered: Will the UN do something?
Last week, the crown prince told the daily pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that Khashoggi’s death is “a very painful crime.” He also said in the interview that “those accused of carrying out the crime are government officials” and that the kingdom is seeking to “achieve full justice and accountability, without getting distracted by positions taken by some for their own domestic considerations that are known to everyone.” However, the UN report pointed to MbS as being liable, and the crown prince is not likely to pursue such accountability in relation to himself. He has acted with apparent impunity because he is de factor ruler of the kingdom.
The UN report’s findings about MbS’s involvement was expected. From the beginning, it was not convincing that the crown prince would allow 15 officials to fly to Istanbul in private jets and commit a crime without his knowledge, particularly at a time when he was holding senior members of the royal family under arrest at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh.
“The content of Agnes Callamard’s 100-page report based on months of investigating the Khashoggi affair is not a surprise,” Khalil Jahshan, executive director of Arab Center Washington DC, told me. “Saudi Arabia has been anticipating such results, which explains their lack of cooperation with the UN expert throughout her investigation.”
The UN report demanded the suspension of the proceedings that Saudi Arabia has initiated against 11 suspects, citing concerns about the secrecy of the proceedings and a potential miscarriage of justice. This move suggests that the way these suspects are being dealt with is not trustworthy. Saudi officials such as these suspects seem to act only on the command of the crown prince, who seems unlikely to punish them for following his orders unless such punishment would save him.
“The findings of the report are in total contradiction with the official Saudi claim that Jamal’s murder was a mistake committed during a botched rendition mission aimed at convincing him to return to Saudi Arabia,” Jahshan added. “The new findings will reopen the case with additional detail and evidence, as it challenges the legal process behind which the government in Riyadh has been hiding.”
All attention is now focused on the world leaders whom the Saudi crown prince will meet at the G20 summit. If these leaders really care about human rights, as they claim, then they should take a firm position. This includes President Donald Trump, who—despite the CIA’s conclusion that MbS ordered the killing of Khashoggi—said in November that he had been told that the crown prince did not play a role. The economic ties between Saudi Arabia and Western countries should not prevent governments from being on the right side of history. Thus far, only one country, Germany, has suspended its arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps, if the crime had been committed by a country other than Saudi Arabia, the reaction would have been different. However, world leaders are obliged to give Riyadh no special treatment, regardless of their interests in the kingdom.
At the previous G20 summit in Argentina, the leaders isolated the de facto ruler of the kingdom appear lonely before the main photo was taken. This time, the leaders are facing a huge test. They are obliged to send a strong message that MbS will not be able to run away from what he did to Khashoggi.
Trump faces an even bigger challenge than other leaders because, apart from meeting MbS at the G20 summit, he has to address a recent congressional resolution that, if implemented, would stop arms sales to Riyadh. He will not likely shift away from his pro-MbS policy given the fact that his administration has already shared nuclear information with Saudi Arabia twice since Khashoggi’s murder. However, continued inaction would only create a deeper conflict between Trump and senators such as Lindsey Graham, who believes that the crown prince should be held accountable.
This does not necessarily mean that Congress has no responsibility in this matter, as it is still obliged to override any presidential veto of the resolution. This will require more Republican senators to vote in favor of it. If the president continues to back his Saudi ally, which seems likely, overriding his veto will be the only way for Republicans to show that they no longer tolerate how Trump treats some of the most brutally repressive leaders in the world as friends.
Abdulaziz Kilani is a British-Arab writer. He is also the editor-in-chief of Sharq Wa Gharb Arabic electronic newspaper. He tweets as: @az_kilani