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Khashoggi: a Saudi dissident's disappearance and the 'Arab Winter'

Why We Wrote This

In the wake of the Arab Spring, many Western powers have accepted the rise of strongmen leaders in the interest of stability. But Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance could put pressure on that political calculus. 

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
A security guard enters the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul Oct. 9. Turkey said it will search the facility as part of an investigation into the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a missing Saudi contributor to The Washington Post, a week after he vanished during a visit there.

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Western powers face a diplomatic challenge if Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who disappeared last week, was indeed killed while visiting the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Turkey has been leaking details of what it describes as a Saudi hit job. The disappearance carries a chilling message: that the vision of democracy and accountability that ignited the Arab Spring in late 2010 has been defeated. So far the US and most other Western powers seem to have concluded the new “Arab Winter” is not without advantages, including the familiarity and stability of strongman regimes. The question now is whether Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance will carry a lasting political cost for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. He has been praised for instituting eye-catching reforms. But he has also jailed hundreds, making it clear any reform will come from above. Saudi Arabia is not the only country in the region where authoritarianism is again thriving. Egypt is under the iron rule of a field marshal turned president. Syria’s Assad is poised to reclaim his hold on the country. In other countries, too, the Arab Spring is a distant memory, with top-down rulers again operating pretty much as before.

On one level, it’s a mystery story, and very possibly a murder mystery. But the disappearance of one of Saudi Arabia’s leading dissidents carries a chilling message with wider echoes: that the vision of democracy, accountability, and free expression that ignited the “Arab Spring” street rebellions of nearly a decade ago has been beaten back and defeated.

So far, the United States and most other Western powers enthusiastic about the Arab Spring seem to have concluded that the new “Arab Winter” is not without its advantages. Having seen Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood thrive on the back of the pro-democracy protests, they have in effect opted for stability and the familiarity of dealing with strongman regimes.

The question now is whether the still-unexplained disappearance of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi from the Saudi consulate in Turkey will carry a lasting political cost for Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Turkish officials have not yet formally blamed Riyadh. But they’ve been leaking details of what they describe as a Saudi hit job, saying Mr. Khashoggi was murdered, dismembered, and his body taken out of the country. The Saudis have called the reports “baseless.”

If Khashoggi was indeed killed, the US, in particular, faces a diplomatic challenge. Turkey is a NATO member. When Russia tried to murder a former military intelligence officer in Britain with nerve gas this year, Washington joined NATO allies in denouncing and sanctioning the attack. Interestingly, though both Britain and the US have come under criticism for downplaying human-rights issues because of the commercial importance of Saudi arms purchases, the Khashoggi disappearance has prompted a strong public response from London, with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warning the Saudis of potentially serious implications if it turns out that Khashoggi was killed.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
A member of the Turkish-Arab journalist association holds a poster with the photo of missing Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, during a protest near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Oct. 8. Mr. Khashoggi went missing on Oct. 2 while on a visit to the consulate for paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancée.

The White House, at least initially, has been more circumspect. That could yet change. Over the past year or so, however, both President Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have established a personal relationship with Salman, touting him as a visionary force for political reform.

Since becoming heir apparent last year, he has indeed made some eye-catching changes. Some are symbolic, like allowing movie theaters to open and women to drive cars. Others are more potentially far-reaching: reining in the religious police and trying to moderate his country’s rigid strain of Islam.

Yet he has also jailed many hundreds of people, even including women’s rights campaigners who, while welcoming the end to the driving ban, have sought deeper reforms. The crown prince’s message has been stark: Change is something that, if and when it happens, will come from above. If you disagree, be quiet. Or face the consequences. Khashoggi’s disappearance may well be intended as the exclamation point.

Saudi Arabia is not the only country where authoritarianism is again thriving. In Egypt, the Arab Spring toppled the 30-year presidency of Hosni Mubarak. Since 2014, it has been under the iron rule of former Field Marshal Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. In Syria, it was Arab Spring protests, met with gunfire and a wave of arrests, that led to the civil war that, seven years later, has left President Bashar al-Assad poised to reclaim his hold on the country. In other countries across the region as well, the Arab Spring is a distant memory, with top-down rulers again operating pretty much as before.

There are some brighter spots. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, has established, and at least so far sustained, a democracy. Lebanon’s more constrained form of representative government has also survived, no small achievement since it is a patchwork of religious communities and only a few decades removed from a civil war as devastating as Syria’s.

What is less clear for the Arab world – and a future challenge for outside powers – is the longer term. The most powerful catalysts for the protests of 2011 were generational, and economic. An ever-swelling population of young people was not just tired of being unable to speak out, but despondent at the prospect of making a living, much less aspiring to the opulent, frequently corrupt, lifestyle of those in power. That pressure has not gone away. In fact, the ability to prey on that disillusionment is one reason Islamist groups have been making fresh inroads in a number of countries.

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