In death, Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi may accomplish far more than he could have ever achieved in life.
His apparent killing two weeks ago in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was gruesome enough — his body beheaded and hacked into pieces after he was tortured and killed — but it has been the stunning aftershocks from his death that may very well endure.
With extraordinary speed, they are humbling the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United States, and shattering three core fantasies underpinning today’s Middle East:
First, the fantasy that Saudi Arabia is embarked on genuine reform.
Second, that its crown prince is a marvel to behold.
In spite of vehement Saudi denials, and feeble efforts by Trump to blame mysterious “rogue killers” instead, all signs point to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as being the mastermind behind Khashoggi’s killing. Even American intelligence officials have come to that conclusion.
Wadah Khanfar, former director-general of the Al Jazeera Media Network and a close friend of Khashoggi’s, said on the BBC that the Saudi journalist was seen as a threat to the Saudi royal family because he “used to be a member of the establishment and was widely respected as credible and balanced.”
Also, as a columnist with The Washington Post in recent years, he wrote in English and that enflamed the Saudi royal family. He consistently suggested that the claim of “reform” happening in Saudi Arabia was mostly a fabrication.
But Khashoggi himself was not without irony. He would have been incredulous at how much commotion his particular case — the murder of one man — has caused in recent days while Saudi Arabia’s notorious role in the civil war in neighbouring Yemen has been virtually ignored in the U.S. media.
Although few Americans probably know it, the fact is that Saudi Arabia has been accused of war crimes in Yemen, where at least 10,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.
That, truly, is one of the major legacies of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, even though he has been the darling of America’s political and media elites.
Saudi Arabia was the first country Trump visited after becoming U.S. president. He was treated like royalty by the Saudi royal family and that clearly won Trump over.
The gushing about the Saudi Crown prince and the marvels of Saudi “reform” — women can now drive! — extended to many of America’s most prominent journalists, including columnists Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and David Ignatius of the Washington Post.
But Trump’s kinship with the Saudi Crown Prince has as much to do with power as it does with money. They both believe that retaining power can only happen when a country’s independent institutions — such as a free press — don’t exist.
That’s why Jamal Khashoggi was so important.
As if writing from his grave, Khashoggi’s last column appeared in Thursday’s edition of the Washington Post. Under the headline, “What the Arab world needs most is free expression,” it was written just before he disappeared but not published until now.
“The Arab world was ripe with hope during the spring of 2011 … brimming with expectations of a bright and free Arab society,” he wrote, but “these societies either fell back to the old status quo or faced even harsher conditions than before.”
He argued that dictatorial Arab governments have now “been given free rein” to crush the media because the wider world has become indifferent: “These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community.”
Khashoggi is right, of course, but — incredibly — his own tragic story may prove to be the exception that rewrites history.
Tony Burman, formerly head of CBC News and Al Jazeera English, is a freelance contributor for the Star. He is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyBurman