Op-Ed: Khashoggi case threatens decades of Saudi impunity

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under a portrait of Saudi King Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Oct. 16.
(Leah Mills / Associated Press)

The death of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi now looms over Saudi-American relations. Even as Turkish police were still combing a forest outside Istanbul for body parts, President Trump said he found credible the Saudi version of events: A discussion “led to a brawl and a physical altercation, which led to his death.” Members of Congress, however, have a few questions. Who dispatched the 15-member death squad with a bone saw? Would agents dismember the body without orders from the highest level? And where is the Washington Post journalist’s severed head?

This dark turn of events produces a sense of déjà-vu. Despite millions of dollars invested by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a massive PR campaign to re-brand the kingdom’s image, we are reminded that Saudi Arabia has been exporting violence for years: the decapitation of the World Trade Center on 9/11; the demolition of lofty Buddhas that once towered in Bamiyan, Afghanistan; beheadings in Raqqah, Syria, by Saudi jihadis with their weaponized Wahhabi ideology imported from Riyadh, where public execution by the sword is a Friday tradition in Deera “Chop Chop” Square.

The Khashoggi case fits a pattern. Each action involved hit jobs outside Saudi Arabia, Saudi outrage at being accused of complicity, the blaming of rogue elements, U.S. politicians deflecting on behalf of their “strategic ally.” The pattern typically ends with responsibility unassigned to the kingdom’s rulers and their myriad ways of funding violence unquestioned.


Yet, in private, it has always been a different story. Secret service agents, intelligence officers, politicos and journalists have known these acts were part of the Saudi “double game” of publicly denying involvement with such violence while turning a blind eye to those who aid and abet it behind the scenes.

U.S. and Saudi relations are not based on shared values of democracy, equality, freedom of speech or the freedom of worship.

Columnist Fareed Zakaria cited a glaring fact in the Washington Post last year:According to an analysis of the Global Terrorism Database by Professor Leif Wenar of King’s College London, more than 94% of deaths caused by Islamic terrorism since 2001 were perpetrated by the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other Sunni jihadists. Almost every terrorist attack in the West has had some connection to Saudi Arabia [emphasis added]. Virtually none has been linked to Iran.”

The connection Zakaria alludes to is Wahhabism — the severe, ultra-conservative sect of Islam that is both Saudi Arabia’s official religion and the core ideology for international terror groups such as Islamic State, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Boko Haram. All claim to be adherents; Islamic State leaders even insist they are “purer” Wahhabis than the Saudis themselves.

The Wahhabi creed, in this extreme, views all other Muslims as deviant — decadent and expendable heretics. Moderate Sunnis, Sufis, Shiites, Druze, Yazidis, Alawites, even whirling dervishes are all apostates. This ideology underpins the massacres of Sufis in Sinai and Pakistan, the enslavement of Yazidi women, bombings of Shiite mosques. Most Muslims condemn Wahhabism as a distortion of Islam. And yet the Saudi regime has invested tens of billions of dollars funding Wahhabi charities, mosques and schools that promote this doctrine across the Middle East and beyond. “The effort is possibly the most expensive ideological campaign in human history,” Wenar told Voice of America.

It is time to take stock, to assess the wreckage this kingdom has wrought on the world. The terrorist acts with “some connection” to Saudi Arabia, cumulatively have fueled a global security-state apparatus that will never be undone. Surveillance systems will monitor us from birth until death.

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Geopolitically, the Saudi talent at lighting fires beyond their borders has spawned other tragedies that will haunt our children. One can argue that the looming breakup of Europe — as the continent lurches to the right into fascist authoritarianism — began with the dawn of Islamic State. The attacks in London, Brussels, Nice and Berlin, refugees fleeing Syria into Europe — all this chaos stoked fears of immigration, fed Islamophobia, and fueled populist sentiment. The Brexit vote, the victories of nationalists such as Viktor Orban in Hungary and Matteo Salvini in Italy — all these are the repercussions of recklessness in Riyadh.

Civil wars burn across Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. In all those places, Saudi sponsorship of violence begets violence still. Make no mistake: The Saudis have not ended their global export, Dawa Wahhabiya, the Wahhabi mission of conversion. Now, tolerant mainstream Sunni Islam is under siege from Dakar to Jakarta. Riyadh’s austere shadow looms over the region, disfiguring the fabric of the Islamic world.

Who would have thought that it would take a journalist’s life to unite the unruly U.S. Congress in near-unanimous condemnation? But the state-sanctioned torture and beheading of Jamal Khashoggi may finally help the United States view our “ally” in the clear light of day. U.S. and Saudi relations are not based on shared values of democracy, equality, freedom of speech or the freedom of worship. All we have shared is the “free flow of oil” conferred by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz in 1945 in the Quincy agreement. Now we share the dubious role of putting out the fires Riyadh has sparked across the Middle East in its crusade against Iran.

But even realpolitik has rules. This is the moment to end Saudi impunity.

Terence Ward is the author of “The Wahhabi Code: How the Saudis Spread Extremism Globally,” “The Guardian of Mercy: How an Extraordinary Painting of Caravaggio Changed an Ordinary Life” and “Searching for Hassan.”

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