Khashoggi’s fate? Why Trump should squeeze the Saudis

Chicago Tribune - - EDITORIALS -

Saudi Ara­bia’s 33-year-old de facto leader, Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, paints him­self as re­formist. He has al­lowed women to drive, reined in the king­dom’s re­li­gious po­lice and per­mit­ted movie the­aters to open. Those re­forms, how­ever, mask a regime that rou­tinely ar­rests its crit­ics and pros­e­cutes a bloody, Saudi-led mil­i­tary cam­paign in Ye­men that con­tin­ues to yield mount­ing civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.

Now the Western world fears that track record may in­clude as­sas­si­na­tion. Ev­i­dence con­tin­ues to build that Saudi journalist Ja­mal Khashoggi suc­cumbed to a vile death plot car­ried out by a team of Saudi agents at the Saudi Con­sulate in Is­tan­bul. Early on the af­ter­noon of Oct. 2, Khashoggi, 59 and a res­i­dent of the U.S., walked into the con­sulate to re­trieve doc­u­ments he needed for his up­com­ing wed­ding. His fi­ancee, Hat­ice Cen­giz, waited un­til af­ter mid­night out­side the con­sulate for him to come out. He never did. Khashoggi, a Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist, wrote crit­i­cally about Prince Mo­hammed and the Saudi regime. Through a steady stream of leaks and videos, Turk­ish of­fi­cials have laid out their al­le­ga­tions against the Saudis: A team of 15 Saudi in­tel­li­gence agents, in­clud­ing an au­topsy ex­pert, ar­rive in Is­tan­bul, mur­der Khashoggi at the con­sulate, dis­mem­ber his body and re­turn to Saudi Ara­bia. Sev­eral me­dia out­lets re­port that Turk­ish of­fi­cials have au­dio and video record­ings of Khashoggi’s mur­der at the con­sulate. Riyadh has stuck to its as­ser­tion that Khashoggi left the con­sulate alive, but it hasn’t pro­vided se­cu­rity video or other ev­i­dence to back that claim.

Turkey has pressed the Saudis to ex­plain what hap­pened. The re­sponse from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who has cod­dled and courted the Saudi royal fam­ily, has been con­spic­u­ously timid. In an in­ter­view Thurs­day with “Fox & Friends,” he de­scribed re­la­tions with the Saudi king­dom as “ex­cel­lent.”

In Congress, calls grow for sanc­tions against the Saudi regime, as well as a halt to U.S. arms sales to Riyadh. Trump bris­tled at that idea. “What good would it do us?” he said.

Well, Mr. Pres­i­dent, it would send a clear mes­sage to the Saudis that busi­ness as usual isn’t go­ing to hap­pen with a regime that si­lences its crit­ics in vi­o­lent, grue­some ways. Maybe Trump the busi­ness­man should look for in­spi­ra­tion from other U.S. and Western busi­ness lead­ers, who in re­ac­tion to what hap­pened to Khashoggi are re­think­ing ties with the Saudis. Uber CEO Dara Khos­row­shahi pulled out of an up­com­ing gov­ern­ment-spon­sored in­vestor con­fer­ence in Riyadh, The Wall Street Jour­nal re­ports. Vi­a­com’s CEO, The New York Times and The Econ­o­mist also pulled out. One in­vi­tee who still plans to at­tend: Trump’s trea­sury sec­re­tary, Steven Mnuchin.

Prince Mo­hammed may be miffed at the Western world’s re­coil­ing, but he shouldn’t be sur­prised. Western CEOs and in­vestors are right to think twice about do­ing busi­ness with a gov­ern­ment that wants and needs strong ties with the West yet in­creas­ingly looks and acts like other, brutish regimes now branded as pari­ahs. If the crown prince wants the West’s seal of ap­proval, he should come clean about the fate of Ja­mal Khashoggi.

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