Why are Arab leaders silent over Khashoggi’s disappearance?

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible murder has gripped world attention, but Arab leaders have chosen to remain silent.

For more than two weeks, there has been no trace of Khashoggi, who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

US senators, British parliamentarians, French and German officials have all voiced their concern and vociferously demanded Saudi Arabia come clean about the Saudi dissident’s whereabouts.

A handful of Arab governments such as Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) did issue statements, but those were in solidarity with Saudi Arabia, which has faced an international backlash over the disappearance of Khashoggi.

Khashoggi, a longtime figure in the Saudi establishment who once enjoyed close relations with members of the royal family, had grown increasingly critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies.

Turkish investigators, through media leaks, have revealed incriminating evidence of the involvement of a 15-man Saudi hit squad, at least four of them linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS.

The UAE, arguably the kingdom’s foremost ally in the region, was the first to come out in support of Riyadh.

“The fierce campaign against Riyadh is expected as is the coordination between its [campaign] inciting parties,” Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs said on October 11.

He added that the “repercussions of the political targeting of Saudi Arabia will be dire for those who fuel it”.

‘Regime is right’

Analysts say the indifference – or timid support – that some have expressed for Saudi Arabia, including Yemen’s government in exile and Lebanon’s Saad Hariri, is testament to the influence Riyadh holds in the region.

It is also a reflection of the dire state of press freedom and human rights more generally in the region, they say.

“We rarely hear Arab governments condemning other Arab governments for human rights abuses except of course within the political divide, especially since the Gulf crisis has emerged,” Fadi al-Qadi, a human rights and media advocate, said.

“There is no political discourse within Arab governments,” said Qadi who is based in Jordan.

Qadi said that while Saudis do hold certain sway over Arab governments, there are also similarities with how the latter also chooses to deal with their own critical citizens.

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Over the years, Qadi explained, the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has disappeared, persecuted and in certain cases killed hundreds if not thousands of political activists, as well as banning hundreds of human rights advocates and activists from traveling outside the country.

Ali Abootalebi, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, told Al Jazeera that speaking out against Saudi Arabia’s abduction of a journalist would amount to criticising oneself and one’s own human rights shortcomings.

“For much of the Arab world, I would say there isn’t such a thing as freedom of the press,” he said.

“There is freedom to the extent that there is a consensus that the regime is right.”

‘Bully tactics’

Saudi Arabia has used its vast oil wealth to buy support while fear of reprisal has forced others to fall in line.

Amani al-Ahmadi, a Saudi activist living in the US, told Al Jazeera that the oil kingdom uses its Islamic influence and financial handouts to strategically form allies “who help support the regime when necessary”.

“Saudi remains the largest Arab country in the region as well as the birthplace of Islam,” she said. “Add to that the size of charitable donations or money it gives to other Arab governments and you have yourself an Arab super power.”

For Justin D Martin, an associate professor at Northwestern University in Qatar, this is in line with Saudi Arabia’s approach to dealing with fellow Arab states.

“Saudi Arabia not only punishes its citizens for speaking candidly, but it also bullies other countries that challenge its supremacy,” Martin said.

“For Egypt and Lebanon, calling the likely murder of a journalist what it is – atrocious – is to invite punishment from a bully state.”

Last December, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned abruptly during an impromptu visit to Riyadh in what was described as the abduction of a sovereign country’s head of government.

Hariri later rescinded his resignation, but his release was possible due to French President Emmanuel Macron’s successful mediation effort.

The UAE, Bahrain and Egypt joined Saudi Arabia in imposing the land, sea and air blockade on Qatar in June 2017.

The quartet imposed a list of 13 demands, including shutting down Al Jazeera Media Network and consenting to monthly “compliance audits” in order to lift the siege.

Double standards of the west

That Saudi Arabia has been unable to stymie criticism of its culpability in the near-certain murder of a Saudi national on sovereign territory in a host nation is largely the result of Khashoggi’s prominence as a journalist writing for a western publication such as the Washington Post.

“At least since World War Two, the US for the most part supported many of the governments that are authoritarian in nature,” Abootalebi said.

The US has remained close relations with Saudi Arabia as controversy mounts [Handout: Bandar Al Galoud/EPA]

“This duplicity is nothing new,” he added. “As such, I don’t expect much will change in US relations with Saudi Arabia, except a public outcry for what has happened, maybe from the US congress and maybe some corners of the US government.”

Qadi pointed to the “shameful silence” of European political discourse over what he called the “tyranny of MBS“.

“International political discourse is corrupted and built on very narrow political and economic interests,” he said.

“Ever since [US President] Donald Trump arrived on the scene, this has manifested itself to a substantial degree. The president didn’t hide at any point that his interest is to maintain the financial interests of the US.”

“I believe that the US and Europe’s silence and direct support are only helping Saudi Arabia to go forward to a deeper level of dictatorship,” he said, referring to their supply of weapons to Riyadh in its devastating war against Yemen as well as their reticence when it comes to abuses of activists and dissidents.

Martin from the Northwestern University does not think the Saudis, the US’ biggest ally, face serious repercussions if the worst is confirmed true regarding Khashoggi.

“The United States won’t confront the existential threat of a warming planet, [so] I doubt any serious sanctions of Saudi Arabia are on the way,” he said.

“Saudi Arabia has likely already gotten away with murder; the world must decide if it leaves Saudi Arabia be to murder next time.”

‘Human rights issue’

For Amani al-Ahmadi, who describes herself on Twitter as “one of the lucky few who made it out [of Saudi] alive and undetained”, Khashoggi’s case is much too big to be forgotten.

“[His case] forces us all to look ourselves in the mirror and decide where do we draw the line,” she said.

“To some, the red line stops at financial benefits but I’d like to think a greater majority values human life for what it is.”

“What is happening in Saudi is a human rights issue, plain and simple,” she added. “And human rights concern us all.”

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