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One year later, Jamal Khashoggi has been proved right

This appeared in The Washington Post.
Jamal Khashoggi never intended to be a dissident. For many years, he wrote for and edited newspapers in Saudi Arabia, and he served as an aide in Saudi embassies in Washington and London. What prompted him to leave the kingdom, and to begin writing columns for The Washington Post, was the sharp increase in domestic repression under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the "fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to speak their minds," as Khashoggi put it in his first Post op-ed, in September 2017.

For the next year, the journalist jousted with the Saudi ruler in the pages of The Post and on the Internet. Khashoggi challenged the crown prince not just on his persecution of critics, which he described as bound to undermine the new regime's ambitions to modernize and revitalize the country. His columns also argued against Mohammed bin Salman's reckless regional agenda — especially the war in Yemen. Khashoggi denounced the attempt to suppress democracy and free expression throughout the Middle East and to exclude Islamist parties from politics — a drive largely sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Khashoggi's ability to wage this debate ended on Oct. 2, 2018. On that day, he walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he was quickly suffocated and his body dismembered by a team of 15 dispatched from Riyadh for that purpose. According to the CIA, Mohammed bin Salman almost certainly ordered the murder; a U.N. investigation also held him responsible. In one sense, he succeeded: Khashoggi's trenchant columns no longer appear, while the crown prince and his closest aide, Saud al-Qahtani, who oversaw the operation, have escaped justice.

President Donald Trump, who embraced the young dictator as a close ally, quickly excused the crime, and Trump and his allies have blocked attempts in Congress to hold the regime accountable. During two interviews broadcast this week, Mohammed bin Salman disingenuously said he accepted full "responsibility" for the killing while denying any personal involvement in it — a lie that only those wishing to excuse him will accept.

And yet, the story is not over. The warnings the journalist sounded, often cast almost as friendly advice to the crown prince, have proved prescient. The Saudi regime continues to suffer the consequences of its persecutions — especially of women seeking greater rights — and its intervention in Yemen. Khashoggi warned the persecution would backfire, and it has; the regime is universally vilified by human rights groups, and Mohammed bin Salman has become a pariah in Western capitals.

Khashoggi also asserted that the Yemen war would make the kingdom less secure. It has "increased the likelihood of domestic casualties and damage," he wrote. A year later, he was proved tragically right when drones and cruise missiles, probably launched by Iran but claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels, evaded defenses and devastated the largest Saudi oil production complex.

One likely consequence of that attack is a further delay in the centerpiece of Mohammed bin Salman's economic program, the international sale of shares in the state oil company, Aramco. At the same time, support in Washington for defending the Saudi regime against further strikes is at one of its weakest points.

Mohammed bin Salman also is losing ground in his campaign to stifle free expression and democracy in the Middle East. The Saudis and the UAE gave billions to prop up Sudan's military regime, only to see the generals strike a deal for a three-year transition to democracy. Algeria has seen the rise of a powerful democracy movement, and Tunisia is holding a competitive presidential election. Recently, protests erupted in Egypt, where another military regime has received billions in Saudi subsidies.

Mohammed bin Salman's policies are carrying him toward a dead end — maybe even a precipitous crash. Trump, mired in scandal and preoccupied with his reelection campaign, is unlikely to do much to help him. The crown prince might still rescue himself, but only if he finally heeds the advice Khashoggi offered him: Release political prisoners and punish those who tortured them; end the war in Yemen; allow peaceful critics to come home and speak freely. Last but not least, the crown prince should accept full responsibility for ordering the murder.

We don't expect that to happen anytime soon. But we believe history will show that Jamal Khashoggi was on the right side of the debate that Mohammed bin Salman thought, mistakenly, he could win with a bone saw. 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.


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