Brutish Saudi prince shows him­self more rogue than re­former

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD -

It has been more than a week since Ja­mal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and govern­ment critic, walked into the Saudi con­sulate in Is­tan­bul to get pa­per­work for a mar­riage. No one has seen him since. Turk­ish of­fi­cials say he was killed by a team of Saudi as­sas­sins, who dis­mem­bered his body, on or­ders from the top of the royal court. The Saudis re­tort that Khashoggi left the build­ing of his own ac­cord.

If so, when? Are there wit­nesses or writ­ten records? Why is there no se­cu­rity-cam­era footage? And why did 15 Saudis fly in on pri­vate jets just be­fore he dis­ap­peared, and leave shortly af­ter?

The Saudis must pro­vide an­swers, or the world will as­sume the worst.

If it tran­spires that Khashoggi has been killed, whether de­lib­er­ately or in a botched kid­nap­ping, it will strengthen the sense that Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, the de facto ruler, is more rogue than re­former.

He has locked up thou­sands of ac­tivists. He de­tained the Prime Min­is­ter of Le­banon, Saad al-Hariri, for two weeks in Novem­ber. His long arm has al­ready reached abroad. In March a women’s-rights cam­paigner, Lou­jain al-Hathloul, was de­tained in Abu Dhabi, whisked to Saudi Ara­bia and, later, thrown in jail. In Septem­ber, a Saudi satirist based in Lon­don claimed he was beaten by goons who had been sent from Saudi Ara­bia.

Mur­der­ing a critic on for­eign soil would be an es­ca­la­tion of a dis­mal trend. Unlike past Saudi roy­als, who al­lowed some de­bate and of­ten sought to me­di­ate be­tween com­pet­ing in­ter­ests, Mo­hammed rules as if only he has the an­swers.

His brutish han­dling of even mild crit­ics is over­shad­ow­ing more ad­mirable poli­cies, which in­clude curb­ing the re­li­gious po­lice, let­ting women drive and en­cour­ag­ing them to work. As his regime starts to re­sem­ble an Arab na­tion­al­ist dic­ta­tor­ship — so­cially lib­eral but cen­tralised, para­noid and built on fear — his prom­ise of a new, tol­er­ant Saudi Ara­bia is re­ced­ing.

Mo­hammed’s au­to­cratic ten­den­cies have eco­nomic con­se­quences. He aims to wean the king­dom off oil. But in­vestors are warned off by the capri­cious way he takes de­ci­sions. Last year, he locked up and seized as­sets from hun­dreds of busi­ness­men, of­fi­cials and princes in an “anti-cor­rup­tion” drive that lacked even a hint of due process. His ef­fort to spur the pri­vate sec­tor is, oddly, top-down. The planned stock­mar­ket listing of part of Aramco, the state oil gi­ant, suf­fered from Mo­hammed’s mi­cro­man­age­ment and has been post­poned in­def­i­nitely. Other grandiose projects, such as NEOM, a fu­tur­is­tic city staffed by ro­bots, seem ill-con­sid­ered.

In coun­tries like the US, where Khashoggi lived, the in­stinct has been to of­fer the prince weapons and sup­port. In­stead, his al­lies should make clear that he does not have a blank cheque, and that his rule would ben­e­fit from more open­ness.

Khashoggi, a former govern­ment ad­viser, of­ten said his crit­i­cism of the Saudi regime was friendly coun­sel. He did not con­sider him­self a dis­si­dent and dis­liked the idea of regime change. “It’s just ridicu­lous,” he told The Econ­o­mist in July. “I be­lieve in the sys­tem — I just want a re­formed sys­tem.”

The Saudi regime should lis­ten to its crit­ics, not si­lence them.

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