OPINION: The tragedy of Jamal Khashoggi: Why does the Saudi regime continue to get away with murder?

Jamal Khashoggi was an educated, enlightened, mild-mannered man ― and at this point, there is little doubt that the Saudi regime has abducted and murdered him. But the sad reality is that Khashoggi is not the first, and probably will not be the last, to be forcibly disappeared by the Saudi regime. The Saudi regime has abducted critics and opponents from numerous countries, including Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Morocco, and Egypt. When the Saudi regime is unable to lay its hands on its opponent, it resorts to threats, assassinations and blackmail by arresting, detaining and torturing family members and friends.


It is hardly news that the Saudi regime has one of the worst human rights records in the world. However, since the Arab Spring and the coming of President Donald Trump to power, Saudi's already abysmal human rights record has become immeasurably worse. What Saudi Arabia did in Bahrain and what it continues to do in Yemen is nothing short of genocidal. Saudi and UAE policies towards Libya have unleashed a horrific amount of blood-letting, and the policies of both countries towards Egypt have enabled and empowered the most autocratic and brutal regimes to ever rule modern Egypt.

I suspect people do not realise the sheer terror that the Saudi regime inflicts upon its opponents around the world. Critics of the Saudi regime live in fear, not just because of the surreptitious violence and persecution, but because Saudi money buys it numerous friends and tacit complicity. Critics of the Saudi regime are not only effectively prevented from visiting the holy sites in Mecca and Medina, but if they travel anywhere in the world, they could be detained and turned over to any of the Muslim governments that act as proxies for Saudi repression.


Khashoggi's case became notorious, not because it is exceptional but because he wrote for the Washington Post, and because of a Saudi miscalculation. Khashoggi's fiancee waited for him outside the consulate, and when he did not re-emerge she alerted the Turkish authorities. The Saudi authorities did not anticipate her presence at the scene ― and indeed, if she was not present, Khashoggi would have become just another disappearance open to the unverifiable speculation that he had been abducted and flown back to Saudi Arabia. His supporters would have demanded answers and, after a short period of time, the world would have moved on ― like so many victims, he would have been forgotten.


Despite the Khashoggi case, the Saudi regime gets away ― and will continue to get away, quite literally ― with murder, mayhem and torture. I write, however, to make three interconnected points.

First, nothing I can say will bring back Khashoggi or hold those responsible for his disappearance accountable. Like so many victims of Saudi Arabia and its allies, Khashoggi was sympathetic towards the Arab Spring and its nascent dreams of democracy and freedom. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, however, have dedicated their considerable resources to defeating any democratic aspirations in the Muslim world and to quashing any form of Islam that attempts to reconcile Islamic theological imperatives to the normative demands of democracy and human rights. Saudi Arabia treated the Arab Spring as if the mass demonstrations for justice and freedom posed an existential threat to the Saudi regime. In this context, instead of the aspirations for democracy and respect for human dignity, Saudi Arabia continues to promote an ethically barren, arid Islam that concerns itself with dry ritualistic practices, and that fatalistically deifies rulers and stresses blind obedience to power, as if despotism is God's solemn law and will.


Second, the United States has become complicit in the manufacturing and perpetuation of Saudi Arabia's grim Islamic theology. When Trump brags that the Saudi government would not stay in power two weeks without support of the United States, and that the Saudis ought to pay a poll tax (a jizya of sorts) for this protection, whether he intends to or not, Trump is taking credit for all the repression, despotism and sheer misery that the Saudi regime inflicts upon Muslims around the world. If you are Muslim, and you criticise the Saudi regime, you live in constant and unrelenting dread. And now, the Trump administration has confirmed what every radicalised and militant Muslim believes: the United States bears primary responsibility for keeping the Saudis in power. Therefore, the horrors committed by the Saudi regime, and all the repression and suffering, are directly attributable to the United States. Trump could not have given Muslim terrorists a greater ideological gift, or a more potent recruiting tool, than this. Considering Saudi Arabia's abysmal human rights record, it is rather mindboggling that we have an American president who is willing to openly take credit for protecting the Saudi government as long as the price is right.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, whether one likes it or not, the reality is that the Saudi king has bestowed upon himself the title of the Guardian of the Two Holy Sites. Since the Wahhabi Najdis annexed the Hijaz region in 1925, Mecca and Medina have come under the tutelage and control of Al Saud, and an intimate and emblematic relationship was created between the heart of the Muslim world and the will and theology of the Saudis. Again, whether one likes it or not, whatever the Saudis say or do deeply affects the way that Islam is perceived and understood in the modern world. Millions of Muslims will insist that we cannot confuse the Islam of the Saudi regime with the numerous ways that Islam is lived and practiced among 1.6 billion of the world's population. This is true. But it is also true that, by virtue of their sovereignty over the holy sites, the Saudis enjoy a theological affinity to doctrinal Islam that is hard to deconstruct or challenge.


It is precisely because of this affinity that all Muslims in world have a right to feel offended and outraged when the Saudi regime murders a gentle soul like Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was expressly loyal to the Saudi ruling family and its king. However, I cannot help but wish that the guardians of the holy sites were ethically and morally ― not to mention theologically ― of a very different order.



Khaled Abou El Fadl is the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law. He is the founder of The Usuli Institute, an Islamic think tank for countering extremism and ignorance.