Critics cite worsening Saudi repression two years after journalist’s gruesome slaying

Mohammed bin Salman, left, smiles as he speaks with a fellow Saudi prince in Riyadh.
(Hassan Ammar / Associated Press)

It’s been two years since Jamal Khashoggi, a 59-year-old Saudi Arabian journalist who lived in Virginia, walked into the kingdom’s consulate in the Turkish commercial capital of Istanbul, never to be seen again.

The grisly details of Khashoggi’s Oct. 2, 2018, killing and dismemberment at the hands of Saudi agents emerged over a period of many months, though his body was never recovered. Since then, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has worked tirelessly to try to rehabilitate an international image tarnished by a killing in which the CIA and the United Nations, among many others, believed him probably culpable.

To a considerable extent, the ambitious crown prince, known as MBS, has succeeded in living down the opprobrium, or at least in ignoring it and moving ahead with business as usual. Next month, Mohammed is scheduled to host a virtual summit of the Group of 20 in Riyadh, in what would be his most high-profile turn on the world stage since the killing of Khashoggi, an opinion writer for the Washington Post.


The 35-year-old crown prince’s campaign of self-rehabilitation received a major boost from President Trump, who brushed aside intelligence reports and ignored U.S. lawmakers’ calls to hold Saudi Arabia accountable not only for Khashoggi’s death, but also for the humanitarian disaster resulting from the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the harsh repression of domestic dissent.

A newly released book by journalist Bob Woodward had Trump gleefully recounting how his personal backing helped shield the crown prince from repercussions related to the Khashoggi killing, including congressional attempts to cut armed sales to the kingdom. “I saved his ass,” Trump told Woodward.

Nevertheless, critics say political repression in the conservative oil-rich kingdom has deepened during the last two years. Activists for causes including women’s rights routinely face abuse and torture behind bars, human rights groups say, while exiled Saudi citizens who criticize the monarchy from afar face the threat of being snatched up and forcibly returned to the kingdom.

Here is more background on the case and its continuing fallout:


Last month, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor announced the sentencing of eight men in connection with Khashoggi’s death, calling it a “final ruling” in the case. The defendants were not named by Saudi authorities, but all were believed to be lower-level operatives, part of a hit squad that arrived in Turkey just before the killing. They were given prison terms of between seven and 20 years.

Agnes Callamard, who led a U.N. investigation that concluded the crown prince almost certainly ordered the killing, called the closed trial a “parody of justice.” Her report, published in June 2019, concluded that it was “inconceivable” that such an operation would have been carried out without the knowledge of the crown prince.

“These verdicts carry no legal or moral legitimacy,” Callamard, an expert on extrajudicial executions, wrote on Twitter at the time of the Saudi announcement. “They came at the end of a process which was neither fair, nor just, or transparent.”


In a September 2019 interview with CBS News, Mohammed denied ordering the killing, but said he accepted “full responsibility” as the country’s de facto leader, which his critics regarded as an infuriating dodge.


Saudi authorities staged a lengthy and elaborate cover-up, insisting for weeks that Khashoggi, who had come to the consulate for paperwork needed to remarry, left after meeting with officials there. Saudi officials eventually acknowledged a struggle had taken place in which they said he was accidentally killed.

But audio captured by Turkish intelligence told a different story: the arrival of a Saudi hit team, accompanied by forensic specialists, who lay in wait for Khashoggi, talking about matters including his size and weight and how that would affect disposal of his corpse, and referring to him at one point as a “sacrificial animal.” The audio, as cited by the U.N. report, captured the sound of his apparent suffocation — and, gruesomely, the hum of a bone saw dismembering the body.


Even before the killing of Khashoggi, the crown prince had moved methodically to consolidate his position in the kingdom’s sprawling royal family as the power behind the throne. The formal ruler is his father, King Salman, a frail octogenarian, but as the country’s day-to-day leader, Mohammed has sidelined one rival after another, a process that continues to this day.

In 2017, Mohammed ordered the rounding up of scores of royal kin, together with some of the country’s top business leaders, confining them in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Some of them were believed tortured within its luxurious confines; others were released but placed under house arrest. Saudi officials described it as an anti-corruption drive, but critics called it a shakedown: The detainees signed over about $100 billion in assets.

This spring saw another campaign targeting senior princes, and more recently, the crown prince ordered the detention of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a well-respected former counter-terrorism chief who worked closely with U.S. officials in past administrations, having earlier been shoved from the line of succession by his cousin.


“That this man today is under arrest and under charge for corruption is extremely dangerous,” Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is a former CIA analyst and presidential advisor, wrote on the group’s website. “I fear for his health. I fear for his life.”


The crown prince was once considered a reformist. On a U.S. tour months before Khashoggi’s killing, he was feted for moving to usher in social changes such as allowing women to drive. But that same year saw the start of a concerted crackdown against rights activists, including more than two dozen campaigners for women’s rights arrested since 2018.

Many are accused of terrorism-related crimes for their activism, denied contact with family or legal representation. Rights groups and relatives have made credible accusations of torture, including sexual abuse. One prominent women’s activist, Loujain Hathloul, was offered release if she made a public denial that she had been tortured in custody.

“It’s a very dire situation,” Hala Aldosari, a women’s rights activist and scholar, told an online forum Thursday sponsored by the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington nonprofit group. “The government acts with impunity; this is the situation we are in.”


After Trump took office in 2017, the crown prince struck up a swift friendship with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Saudi Arabia was Trump’s first foreign visit, a lavish affair featuring sword dances and vows of friendship.

It heralded a U.S. administration under which Saudi Arabia has encountered almost no pushback over rights abuses, the crushing of internal dissent or the procuring of U.S. arms used in the war in Yemen. Most activists hold out little hope of change in Washington’s policy toward the kingdom if Trump is reelected in November, with the crown prince the prime beneficiary of that largesse.


Deeply entrenched problems with the U.S.-Saudi relationship did not begin with Khashoggi’s death, but the killing threw them into sharp relief, said Annelle Sheline, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute, a Washington think tank. She urged what she called a long-overdue reset, including pressure to end the war in Yemen and a blockade of neighboring Qatar orchestrated by the crown prince.

Riedel, who last month testified before Congress on the U.S.-Saudi relationship, described “a fundamentally different and new relationship with Saudi Arabia” due in large measure to the crown prince’s reckless leadership.

“Saudi Arabia today is more a danger to the United States than it is an ally,” he said.