Sarah Aziza reports that the mysterious disappearance and possible murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey is not the first such act taken against dissident Saudis abroad but simply the most daring. It is something that has gone on for decades but has been escalated dramatically by current strongman and friend of Jared Kushner, crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The situation has become so bad that expatriate Saudis wonder if there is any distance that they can put between them and their home country that will be safe.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has employed a wide spectrum of tactics in dealing with dissidents abroad. Often, the Saudi government will begin with an attempt to persuade dissidents to cease their criticism or request that they return to the kingdom to sort out the issue on Saudi soil. Should these efforts fail, the government may move into a more coercive mode. Saudi activists abroad report receiving phone calls from their local embassies and consulates, urging them to come in for undefined reasons. “None of us would ever actually go to these meetings,” one Saudi activist, currently living in the United States, told The Intercept several weeks before Khashoggi’s disappearance. “We know inside there, anything could happen.”
Since then, the government has continued to exert its control on dissenting voices beyond its borders — including those from within the ranks of the royal family. Since 2015, three princes have vanished while abroad after publicizing views critical of the Saudi government. In March 2017, prominent human rights activist Loujan al-Hathloul was arrested in the United Arab Emirates, where she was studying for her master’s degree. She was forced onto a private plane, flown back to Saudi Arabia, and jailed briefly, then placed under a travel ban. (Her husband, Fahad al-Butairi, was also removed from Jordan and flown back to the kingdom.) Later, in May 2018, Saudi security again arrested al-Hathloul at her home amid a wider crackdown on activists. She has not been heard from since.
The audacious, and outsized, nature of Saudi’s more recent crackdowns on its citizens abroad reflect MBS’s intense desire to control the narrative — in any and every form — about his rule. The crown prince has spent millions to project an image of himself as a reformer and visionary for a burgeoning Saudi renaissance, but his rule has been marked by increasingly autocratic tactics both domestically and abroad.
The story highlights the problematic role of embassies. They have privileged status and have immunity from many of the laws that apply in the countries that host them. But what should be done when they become places of outright criminality such as murder, kidnapping, and torture? It may be that the only recourse is to shut down the embassy entirely and withdraw all its personnel. It may be time to do that to Saudi Arabia. It deserves to be treated as an international pariah state.