It’s depressingly easy, looking at the long and bloody history of events which the House of Saud has been able to get away with, to imagine that regime to be essentially immune to criticism. Even the slaughter and starvation in Yemen has largely gone unremarked over the last three and a half years. I wrote just before Christmas of the grim parallels with the forgotten atrocities of the Biafran war.
But history can hinge in unexpected ways. It might be odd, even unfair, for the fate of one man to have an impact when the displacement of millions and the deaths of tens of thousands have not. Nonetheless. the scandal over the disappearance – and alleged murder – of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist, in Istanbul has so far dented the regime more than any of the blowback over its actions in Yemen. Indeed, it’s turning into a pressing row which may yet force the UK to belatedly re-evaluate its relationship with the Kingdom.
The obvious reason for Khashoggi gaining more attention than the anonymous masses who have died in Yemen is that he is a journalist. Few things interest the media more than news about their own industry, and few things outrage them more than an attack upon one of their own. Saudi Arabia has arrested, beaten, disappeared and killed all sorts of people whom it finds inconvenient, including women who want to drive cars and people who want to discuss religion freely, but in (at best) kidnapping a journalist it appears to have made a serious miscalculation about what it can get away with without consequences.
The price of that misjudgement is only starting to be felt. People who might have accepted the Crown Prince’s PR about reform and liberalisation at face value are now adopting a more sceptical standpoint. Major media organisations are pulling out of the investment drives that the regime believes are crucial to its future, as are prominent business figures. The coverage and scrutiny shows no sign of dissipating, and I suspect news outlets will start to extend the story by digging into other cases of unhelpful voices disappearing from Saudi public life over the years.
The Western governments – particularly the US and UK – on which the House of Saud relies as supportive allies now face a major challenge to their already troubled policy. Donald Trump is trying to ignore the issue, but that option might yet be denied him by the potential intervention of the Senate. Under the Magnitsky Act, which Senators have now triggered, the White House is now charged with applying sanctions to any individuals responsible for violating Khashoggi’s human rights. There are also threats that Congress will seek to disrupt future arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
The British government was already in some discomfort from the reflected inglory of our ally’s actions in Yemen and elsewhere, not least as British firms help to arm Saudi forces. Ministers are now battling to produce a convincing response to the Khashoggi scandal, making a difficult position even harder to defend.
Jeremy Hunt summoned the Saudi ambassador, and threatened that “if media reports prove correct, we will treat the incident seriously”. Quite what that seriousness would involve is yet to be seen, however. The Foreign Secretary cautioned that “friendships depend on shared values”, and yet it has been clear for many years – indeed, from the outset of the relationship almost a century ago – that Saudi Arabia and the UK have essentially no such values in common.
Instead, the relationship has always been justified on the grounds of shared interests, which are not the same thing as shared values. The Soviet Union under Stalin and the United Kingdom under Churchill had a shared interest in defeating Nazism, but our values were utterly different and our relationship ended as soon as the interest which tied us together was fulfilled. Placing interests above values might be advisable as a strictly temporary measure in times of grave need, but it should not be sustained beyond all necessity or good sense.
Whichever you prize more, on front after front – the spread of Islamist extremism globally and in the UK; the harm done by association to our country’s standing and moral authority around the world; the humanitarian disasters in Yemen and elsewhere; and now the kidnapping or murder of journalists – our alliance with Saudi Arabia offends against both our values and our interests. That was clear before Khashoggi disappeared, and it is even clearer now.