Political leaders around the world, including those in this country, will be watching with interest as President Joe Biden delivers a speech on America’s future dealings with Saudi Arabia. It’s no secret that last week’s unveiling of a U.S. intelligence report, concluded that Saudi crown prince and heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, directly ordered the murder of U.S. based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
For human rights advocates who feel the time has come to bring global condemnation on Salman, Biden must speak in no uncertain terms. Numerous diplomats and corporate leaders disagree, stating that punitive actions against Saudi Arabia will both disrupt the global economic system and curtail social advancements made in recent years under the self-same prince. Admittedly, it is complex.
In a relationship that can only be termed a “marriage of convenience,” the United States has turned a blind eye to the harsher elements of Saudi Arabia for decades. Many global commentators aren’t wrong when they claim that successive American administrations have been responsible for the degree of injustice fostered in the oil-rich kingdom. They have made excuses for the crimes, and accommodated the Saudis in order to secure access to oil.
Things became extreme when America, under Obama, helped provide the resources that were eventually used by the Saudis to attack Yemen, inevitably creating a massive humanitarian crisis. So, yes, the Biden administration has inherited an American foreign policy that has blood on its hands.
At the same time, ironically, Saudi Arabia has been undergoing something of a social and political transformation, by curtailing extreme religious powers, giving women new economic opportunities, and submitting itself to many of the guidelines governing the management of the global economic system. Much of this has been led by Prince Salman himself, in his effort to legitimize himself before the world.
And therein lies Biden’s crucial problem. In speaking out on Khashoggi’s murder, will he curtail the gentle ushering of Saudi Arabia into the world of nations? We’ll find out more today in his announcement.
Just for context, it might be helpful to know what the Americans discovered in their investigation into the journalist’s brutal murder. For this, we are greatly helped by Ronald Deibert, Canadian editor and head of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School in Toronto.
Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to secure documents related to his upcoming marriage. His fiancée waited outside, excited at the prospects for their future together. As a precaution, he left his cell phones with her outside. She watched him enter and was never to see him again.
CCTV footage reveals him entering. Soon after, a kill squad of 15 Saudi agents, flown directly in from Saudi Arabia, apprehended him and went about their gruesome work. Electronic intercepts by the Turkish government and shared with a special UN investigation reveal that the agents attacked him. “I can’t breathe,” Khashoggi called out. In sinister fashion, they went about their work of hacking the journalist to pieces with a bone saw and placing the body parts into separate plastic bags. His remains have never been found.
And now Joe Biden’s administration has released intelligence information showing that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the second most powerful man in Saudi Arabia, ordered and resourced the entire operation. This is the stuff of nightmares. But it happened, and the one responsible is also the man who is slowly opening his country up to more accountability. It’s a sad irony, made more tragic by the events of Khashoggi’s demise.
On May 25, less than a year ago, the world heard that same phrase – “I can’t breathe” – used repeatedly in media reports of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. In fact, according to bystanders, he uttered it some 20 times before he died.
The world knows what happened subsequently. Not just a movement, but a revolution resulted that sent shock waves around the world. Efforts at opposing racism in recent months owe a great part of their effectiveness to the tragedy of Floyd’s death. Signs began appearing in America, Canada, and Europe, displaying only three words: “I Can’t Breathe”. It has become a call to action.
For whatever reason, Khashoggi’s use of the same phrase hasn’t carried this effect. But should they, now that more of the details have emerged?
This country partners with Saudi Arabia on numerous peace and security issues, many of them dealing with refugees, energy, and counter-terrorism. The great mosques in both Mecca and Medina, visited by thousands of Canadian Muslims each year, are situated in Saudi Arabia. More than 15,000 Saudi students are educated in Canada each year. The economic partnership is thriving, with Saudi Arabia being this country’s second largest export partner in the Middle East.
Should Biden take a strong stand and Justin Trudeau back him, there will certainly be ramifications and disruption. This is the world of modern human rights, diplomacy, economics, and global citizenship – a potent brew that requires a master touch. Is Canada capable of that effective kind of balance? We are about to find out.