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Crown prince welcomed back onto world stage after death of Khashoggi

Condemnation of Saudi journalist’s murder picks up, yet Mohammed bin Salman’s appearance at the G20 summit confirms just how valuable an ally Riyadh is to most.

Saturday 8 December, 2018
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, pictured at the G20 Leaders’ Summit.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, pictured at the G20 Leaders’ Summit. Foto:AFP/ ALEJANDRO PAGNI

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It took seven-and-a-half minutes for Jamal Khashoggi to be killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. His body was dismembered with a bone saw. He thought he was going to pick up documents he needed to marry his fiancée.

In the immediate aftermath of his shocking death, Khashoggi’s murder made headlines across the globe, all the while casting a long shadow over geopolitical relationships the world over. Saudi Arabia, a vital US ally in the Middle East and key oil exporter, is in the spotlight.

On Tuesday, top US Senators emerged from a classified briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel, saying they are certain that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the murder of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and a vocal critic of the Saudi leadership.

“You have to be wilfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organised by people under the command of MBS,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters, using an acronym to refer to the Saudi crown prince.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats have introduced a scathing resolution to hold the Saudi crown prince accountable for the killing and to advance a measure that would end US support for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen.

“If the crown prince went in front of a jury, he’d be convicted in 30 minutes,” said Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But for all the bluster in Washington at present, Saudi Arabia does not find itself isolated.

HIGH-PROFILE APPEARANCE

Last weekend, Mohammed bin Salman appeared on the world stage at the G20 Leaders summit in Buenos Aires, his first high-profile appearance after the killing.

Khashoggi’s death sparked outrage among the international community, prompting world leaders to scrutinise the Saudi investigation and demand more clarity about the incident.

Yet the crown prince was there, far from shunned, with Russian President Vladimir Putin greeting him like a fond sibling. Many of the world leaders gathered met face-to-face with bin Salman for bilateral meetings. Not all were willing to speak out.

French President Emmanuel Macron confronted the crown prince face-to-face on the sidelines of the summit. “I strictly told him we need a credible international investigation,” said Macron at a press conference later of the talk.

“He took note of it. I was not expecting any further from him now,” he said, adding that hoped bin Salman would respond soon.

A short video of their informal meeting shows the two standing close and apparently unaware the conversation was being recorded. The exchange was only partly audible, but the video shows the crown prince saying: “Don’t worry.” Macron replied: “I do worry. I am worried.”

Canada’s Justin Trudeau and UK Prime Minister Theresa May were forceful in their condemnations of Saudi Arabia at separate press conferences.

Trudeau stressed the fact Canada will “always stand up strongly and clearly for human rights,” while May encouraged the prince to fully cooperate with the Turkish authorities in the investigation and to ensure full accountability for the responsible of the murder.

“The prime minister emphasised the importance of ensuring that those responsible for the appalling murder of Jamal Khashoggi are held to account, and that Saudi Arabia takes action to build confidence that such a deplorable incident could not happen again,” May’s office said in a statement after the meeting.

Some, however, believe the tide is turning.

“We are seeing the progressive isolation of MbS,” said Reed Brody, counsel at Human Rights Watch and member of the advisory board of the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights. “After all he can’t just run away from his crimes.”

The advocacy group filed a request with Argentina in late November to prosecute bin Salman for alleged crimes against humanity, outlining its public findings on alleged violations of international law committed during the armed conflict in Yemen, possible complicity in serious allegations of torture of Saudi citizens, and the murder of Khashoggi. The prosecutor has accepted the case, yet the crown prince has now left the country.

DIVIDING LINE

Khashoggi’s murder has drawn attention once again to threat facing journalists across the world.

So far, 49 journalists have been targeted and killed for their work in 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and around 250 have been imprisoned.

But hostility towards the media is no longer limited to authoritarian countries. Statistics show more and more democratically-elected leaders no longer see the press as a founding principle of democracy, but instead as an adversary. Populist leaders are intentionally denouncing critical media and their coverage as biased, the factual information they report as “fake,” weakening their credibility and diminishing their work.

The severity of the pressure differs from country to country, but the line separating verbal violence from physical violence seems to be dissolving.

“This is an asymmetrical warfare. Journalists have nothing but their journalism to protect them, while governments have access to incredible resources, security forces, surveillance and prison,” said Rob Mahoney, deputy executive director at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“Justice for Jamal is what journalists need […] or impunity will reign and then everyone will be at risk.”

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