What certainty do South African critics of Saudi Arabia have that they will not face the same tragic fate that befell Jamal Khashoggi?
Three recent commentators who took public positions to express their disdain for Saudi war crimes in Yemen come to mind. Zeenat Adam, Suraya Dadoo and Shannon Ebrahim are part of a growing number of South Africans whose critique of the House of Saud, makes them extremely vulnerable to Saudi thuggery.
These concerns may have been dismissed as laughable and perhaps even paranoid a fortnight ago. But the assassination and dismemberment of Khashoggi by hitmen assigned to commit the ghastly crime within the confines of a consulate, has underlined the danger faced by critics and opponents of the Saudi oligarchy.
The Saudi regime may not enjoy the psychological pressure which Israel usually applies. To slander opponents of its occupation and apartheid policies, the settler colonial power resorts to branding them as “antisemites”. This defamatory tool is regularly applied by Israel to intimidate and silence external critics.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, its unelected leaders have traditionally whipped up sectarian divisions ala George Bush: “You either with us or against us”. In a religious context, this divisive strategy has served Saudi geopolitical interests well for “with us” equates to “Sunni Islam” while “against us” means being in bed with “Shia Islam”.
Thus in a broad context, Saudi dependency on keeping America’s discredited “war on terror” alive, explains a great deal about the royal family’s use of it as a defensive shield and offensive wars.
Derailing the Arab Spring, funding and arming Egypt’s military coup, laying siege on Qatar, bombing Yemen, allying with Israel against Palestinians, seeking military action against Iran, outlawing legitimate civil society formations and resistance movements such as Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah as “terrorists”, and stoking intra-Muslim strife are some of the despicable policies which define Saudi Arabia.
Critics, whether in South Africa or elsewhere are probably aware of Saudi intelligence ties to Israel’s notorious Mossad. They’d also be mindful of the long reach of Saudi Mokhabarat (security forces) as the willful murder of Khashoggi demonstrates.
Reports about Khashoggi’s disappearance and assassination while he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, have devastated not only his family, friends and fellow journalist colleagues, but also activists campaigning for drastic socio-political changes in the Arabian peninsula.
A one-time adviser to the Saudi kingdom with close ties to the establishment, including prominent members of the “royal” family, Khashoggi’s increasingly critical views of the de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman turned him into an enemy.
The threat he posed in his role as an active dissident derived from the fact that having interacted closely with Saudi and Arab intelligence services for more than thirty years, he was privy to many secrets. In addition, his position as a columnist for Washington Post and access to influential platforms in America and Europe, amplified his power to undermine Mohammad bin Salman and his fake “reforms”.
Khashoggi’s self-imposed exile in Washington was evidently a choice he made to avoid being a victim of the harsh crackdown on independent voices. Despite his profile as a renowned political analyst cum journalist, with close to two million Twitter followers, it did not render him immune from state-sponsored harm, as we now know.
It is known too from credible reports, that the folly, arrogance and brutality associated with Mohammad bin Salman, seems limitless. It may be his reasoning that if close allies and patrons such as Netanyahu and Trump can get away with murder, surely their protection would be sufficient for him to continue liquidating opponents under the guise of eliminating “terrorists”?
Mohamed bin Salman has been lauded in the West as a “great reformer” and harbinger of “friendship” with the colonial entity that has occupied Palestine for more than seven decades. Unfortunately for him and the rapacious family of “royals” he symbolizes, the Khashoggi affair has exposed Saudi Arabia as a ruthless dictatorship that uses brutal methods to dispose of enemies.
Though international outrage against the killing has been as loud as media coverage, the South African government has yet to make its stance known.
Justifiably, critics will question whether the controversial yet lucrative arms trade and the pledge of billions of dollars made to President Ramaphosa, will hold us hostage to a rogue regime’s contempt for human rights.