Elizabeth Burton-Phillips: How it felt to read Mum, Can You Lend Me Twenty Quid? for Audible, and revisit the pain, truth and legacy of my son’s death
The second anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul occurred with little more than a flutter of international media interest. True, giant, haunting images of the Saudi journalist were projected onto the buildings of the Saudi embassy in Washington and the headquarters of Jamal’s last employer, the Washington Post. Joe Biden, the Democrat candidate for the US presidency, issued a seemingly powerful statement declaring that Khashoggi’s death would not be in vain, and that a Biden administration would reassess America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia to ‘make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.’
However, the Biden statement did not demand accountability from the Saudi crown prince, who in the CIA’s judgement probably ordered the killing of the journalist. Instead, it merely pointed out that Jamal’s loved ones ‘deserve accountability’; and though an admission of truth and culpability is what Khashoggi’s friends, supporters and fiancée want, such accountability remains as elusive as ever.
On the anniversary itself, 2 October, Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz appealed to G20 leaders not to attend the G20 summit in Saudi Arabia in November; but not even her native Turkey, which exposed most of the evidence incriminating the Saudi government, will boycott the event. Nor will President Trump, who had boasted ‘I saved his ass’ when he was asked by the journalist Bob Woodward about the crown prince’s alleged involvement in murder.
Due to COVID restrictions, the summit will be held online rather than in person in Riyadh, which will come as a relief to many of the presidents and prime ministers taking part. Not just because they know that the Saudi trial for the murder was a sham; but because hundreds of political prisoners, including journalists and academics, still remain locked up in Saudi jails as they have done for years.
Perhaps most egregious of all is the case of a 31-year-old woman, Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been imprisoned since May 2018. She’s one of at least a dozen women’s rights campaigners who’ve been flogged, electrocuted and sexually harassed in custody. Their crime? Campaigning for the right to drive. Even though the kingdom finally granted this privilege only a few weeks after Loujain was arrested, she has not been forgiven for demanding it.
Although the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman or ‘MbS’, pledged that he would ‘personally follow up’ on these torture allegations, Loujain’s family say MbS’s then media adviser was present several times when it occurred and even threatened to throw her body into the Saudi sewage system.
The same adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, is also implicated in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, having ordered the journalist to stop writing, then asked him repeatedly to return home from abroad, and finally – by the Saudi authorities’ own admission – helping plan the operation against the journalist in Istanbul.
However, Qahtani was never charged with any crime due to ‘insufficient evidence’. The American and British governments have imposed an asset freeze and travel ban upon him, but neither his freedom – nor Loujain’s ongoing imprisonment – will be allowed to disrupt the G20 summit, with so many arms sales and oil exports at stake.
This is hardly surprising. Six months before Khashoggi disappeared, the crown prince visited London and signed a memorandum of understanding on the possible purchase of forty-eight Eurofighter Typhoon jets, to add to the current Saudi fleet of seventy-two. Although the British government hosted an international conference on the protection of journalists in 2019, there are apparently too many risks to the Saudi relationship to pursue justice any further.
The Saudi trial of the alleged killers was held behind closed doors, with diplomats only permitted to attend if they signed confidentiality agreements first. At the end of 2019, the Saudis announced that five unnamed men faced the death penalty, while a further three were jailed. The judge concluded that the killing was a ‘snap decision’, with no evidence of premeditation or a ‘kill order’ from Riyadh, even though all fifteen in the hit squad were government employees, many of them from the security detail of MbS himself.
In May 2020, the case took a predictably choreographed turn. Jamal Khashoggi’s eldest son, Salah, announced on Twitter that his family had forgiven his father’s killers, which meant that five condemned men would not be beheaded in a public square after all, but jailed instead. Sentences ranged from seven to twenty years.
The journalist’s four children have otherwise stayed quiet, after receiving financial gifts and multi-million-dollar homes in unofficial compensation from the Saudi government. It looks like what the UN’s rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Agnes Callamard, describes as a ‘well-rehearsed parody of justice’, though she acknowledges that it is better that those found guilty are spared the executioner’s sword.
The Turks are holding their own trial of the Khashoggi murder suspects, though it is unlikely to cast much further light on the case, given how much the Turks have already disclosed, and given that the Saudis have refused to extradite any of the accused to Istanbul or provide any material evidence to the court. President Erdogan of Turkey may also feel that he has taken his campaign against Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest mosques of Islam, as far as he wants it to go.
After all, King Salman is ill and the crown prince could succeed his father as ruler at any moment. Now aged just 35, MbS could be in charge of the kingdom for fifty years or more. How much of an enemy of him do his critics really want to make?
In July 2020, the UK sanctioned twenty Saudis for involvement in the murder, three more than the Americans had done back in 2018. Six of the men were listed by the British government as advising or working for MbS. Though it was the right thing to do – and underlined a possible chain of command leading to the crown prince himself – MbS remains beyond rebuke. Not just because going any further would be to accuse a de facto head of state of involvement in murder; but because, the argument goes, it would also possibly endanger those reforms which are under way.
Since Khashoggi’s death, the kingdom has announced that criminals will no longer be flogged and that capital punishment will be abolished for crimes committed by children. Women can travel without a male guardian – one of them is now the first female Saudi ambassador to the United States.
However, Saudi Arabia’s toughest moment in the international spotlight since the September 11 terrorist attacks has not forced it to embark on significant change. Political parties are still banned and the monarch’s rule is absolute. In addition, it is unimaginable that there will be a credible investigation into the Khashoggi murder as long as the current crown prince remains in office.
This won’t stop Khashoggi’s fiancée and the UN’s rapporteur from demanding an international criminal enquiry, even though no member of the UN Security Council nor the UN Secretary General himself have backed such demands. Nor does it seem likely that a Biden presidency would bow to calls for the CIA to release the information it has, including the declassification of telephone intercepts. For all the talk of America ending its dependency on Saudi oil, a fundamental rethink of the US-Saudi alliance seems premature.
In the meantime, Khashoggi’s many friends and loved ones are left with no justice nor any body to bury, since it has never been found. Adding to their pain, the G20 summit marks a further step in the rehabilitation of the Saudi prince widely believed to be ultimately responsible.
‘As a leader, I must take responsibility,’ MbS admitted when CBS News asked him about the case, before denying that he could possibly know everything which happens under his watch. His reputation has been irredeemably tarnished but all the signs are that he has literally got away with murder.
Jonathan Rugman’s book The Killing in the Consulate is out now in paperback from Simon & Schuster.