The media’s hypocrisy over Jamal Khashoggi stinks. The president is wise to ignore it
You have probably never heard of journalist Turki bin Abdul Aziz Al Jaser. He was beaten to death last month by the Saudi regime in one of the kingdom’s notorious torture chambers. He had been ‘forcibly disappeared’ by the security forces in March, after a spy at Twitter’s headquarters in Dubai reportedly connected him to an account highlighting the regime’s human-rights abuses. Contrast the scant American media interest in that outrage with the ongoing frenzy surrounding the slaughter of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul.
The White House’s just-published report from President Donald Trump into who was responsible for Khashoggi’s killing – which effectively says there is no smoking gun proving Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered or was aware of the hit – is already provoking another tsunami of Twitter outrage. Will it ever end? Even the Las Vegas massacre in 2017 – the worst mass shooting in American history, which killed 58 and left 851 injured – dominated the headlines for barely more than a week.
Perhaps the most dispiriting part of the brief coverage afforded to Al Jaser’s murder – which occurred a week after Khashoggi’s – was how it was mentioned only in so far as it could give fresh impetus to the Khashoggi saga. Nobody, though, highlighted a rather important caveat. For more than a decade before he was killed, Khashoggi was paid vast sums by the Saudi royals to work as an official government media spokesman, when he was tasked with justifying human rights abuses of the Al Jaser kind in interviews with the Western media. And how he reveled in the role! Once, on a show hosted by Fareed Zakaria on PBS, he took me to task when I suggested that peaceful Saudi protesters should not be shot at with live ammunition. ‘No, no, no. We don’t allow demonstrations in Saudi Arabia,’ he intoned. Worse, as I document in a passage on Khashoggi in my book on Saudi Arabia, during the same period he told the BBC that torture does not happen inside the kingdom.
In its sanctimonious coverage of Khashoggi’s killing, the Western media that invited him with such frequency to shamelessly peddle those and many other lies is now taking all leave of its own critical senses. American newspaper columnists and TV pundits especially have casually abandoned all pretense at objectivity and balance. They are determined to portray Khashoggi’s murder as the silencing of a saintly truth-teller. They really do seem to be of the opinion that banging out a few hundred words of Muslim Brotherhood propaganda for the Washington Post once a month is one of the noblest activities any human being had ever engaged in.
This whitewash has proven to be an embarrassing undertaking in willful self-delusion. The media continues to ignore, for example, Khashoggi’s Islamist political beliefs and his close association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned as a terrorist organization in Saudi Arabia. Even the Post reported that these ties, and not Khashoggi’s role as a newspaper columnist, were uppermost on bin Salman’s mind at the time of the murder (though the matter was then conveniently buried again). It came as no surprise to me. During the three years I worked alongside Khashoggi as managing editor of the Jeddah-based Saudi daily Arab News, the only time I recall him objecting to the pro-regime bullshit we were made to publish – which was the source of much hilarity to the rest of us – was when the then powerful Interior Minister Prince Naif stated that the Muslim Brotherhood was the cause of most the problems in the Arab world. Khashoggi waved the government statement in front of me with a look of absolute horror, and left the office early in a huff.
The media also continues to gloss over Khashoggi’s shady past as an intelligence operative and his decades of service as a Saudi royal lackey. This dates back to the 1980s when, at the behest of Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki Al Faisal, he formed such a close friendship with Osama bin Laden that veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk recalled seeing the two of them greet each other in Sudan by locking in an effusive embrace. Khashoggi wanted the world to forget this too. I mentioned Fisk’s anecdote, contained in his book The War for Civilization, when I bumped into Khashoggi in Washington about a decade ago. He froze before finally mumbling: ‘Thank God he spelled my name incorrectly.’ (I later checked, and his last name is indeed missing a ‘g’.)
Most egregious is how media outlets have consistently relied on single, anonymous sources, a practice abandoned for a while after the appalling mistakes made in the build up to the Iraq war. This is despite the fact that most of the uncorroborated (and thus, as the White House correctly implies in its report, unproven) information comes exclusively from a Muslim-Brotherhood dominated Turkish government, which adopted fellow traveler Khashoggi after he gave his Saudi paymasters the finger. That Turkey is Saudi Arabia’s main rival for influence in the Sunni Muslim world, and has an obvious vested interest in undermining bin Salman, should be cause for continuous skepticism. Alas, the Washington Post instead published an op-ed in defense of supposedly martyred journalist Khashoggi by none other than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This is a tyrant who has jailed more journalists than any other world leader. He is also in the awkward position of having rendered political dissidents from abroad, some of whom haven’t been heard from since.
Nowhere, though, is the media’s moral degeneracy on greater display than in its new push to end the Yemen war as revenge for his murder, now it is obvious bin Salman is not going anywhere any time soon. The brutal conflict was largely ignored before, to the extent that it has become known as ‘the forgotten war’. Another layer of irony here: Khashoggi initially supported the invasion in the Saudi media when he was still close to the royals. He only started to criticize it when he realized how abhorrent that position was to his new readership in the West. More generally, if those American media figures now so outraged at Khashoggi’s killing had, three years ago, exerted even one percent of the energy they have on seeking justice for him to highlight the barbaric Yemen war, tens of thousands of that country’s population might not have been slaughtered, and 15 million of them might not be facing the worst famine the world has known for 100 years.
Now there is the bizarre implication that redemption can be found in the name of Khashoggi. I don’t wish anyone any harm, but for me the death of a single innocent little Yemeni child will always be a greater tragedy than whatever dark fate may befall any grandiose American op-ed columnist. And lest we forget: Khashoggi also remained steadfast in his support of the ‘moderate’ Islamist rebels in Syria, who did to thousands of innocents precisely what the Saudi regime did to him. But our intrepid ‘Global Analysts’ were too busy heaping praise on bin Salman to recognize any of this, while calling for Trump to use ISIS to overthrow President Bashar Al Assad in Syria.
The hypocrisy now stinks to high heaven. One can’t resist, almost despite oneself, a wry smile at how bin Salman played them all like a fiddle, using the Western media to consolidate his position and then, just hours after the Khashoggi killing, saying that he no longer cares about his image in the west. In the unlikely event that Thomas L. Friedman is invited back to Riyadh for a cosy midnight chat over mint tea, bin Salman would be entirely justified in greeting him by asking: ‘Who’s ya daddy?’
Trump at least appears to understand all of this. Thankfully he has resisted pressure to push for bin Salman’s ouster. Khashoggi’s murder was abominable, but nothing that out of the ordinary in the Arab world. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi came to power by massacring as many as a thousand peaceful Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators, and to the accompaniment of just a few critical op-eds, Trump then invited him to the White House. Again, we are being told that Khashoggi’s life was worth more than those of one thousand Egyptian men, women and children.
More to the point: the idea that there is a democratic alternative to a brutal dictator as Saudi Arabia transitions from Wahhabi backwater to modern nation state is a fantasy. It is entertained only by self-promoting exiled Saudi dissidents, who tell the media what they want to hear, and racist western liberal commentators who bafflingly cannot conceive that people who live in different cultures with unique traditions and their own religions might not have any loftier ambition than to be just like us. But if there was one thing I learned when independently traveling the length and breadth of Saudi Arabia for three years, it is that you can count the number of Saudis who yearn for a pluralistic, secular-style western democracy on the fingers of one hand. At the same time, most have no wish, either, to live in a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Islamic theocracy envisaged by the likes of Khashoggi. Bin Salman is instead steering the kingdom on the path between these two cliff edges. If I were an ordinary Saudi fearful that my country could become another Libya or Syria – or that power will return to the dithering old fools whose sole achievement was to oversee the squandering of the kingdom’s potential decade after decade – I would be banking on bin Salman’s longevity, and grateful that Trump had not thrown him to the wolves. Now is the time for western businesses to take their cue from Trump by ignoring calls for a boycott and invest in Saudi Arabia’s future, just as they do in Egypt, China and countless other countries where regime excesses are routinely ignored. Anything else would be little more than sentimental virtue-signaling. The Saudi people deserve our support.