On October 2, 2018, Saudi Arabian dissident exile and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never walked out. Khashoggi, it was eventually revealed, was drugged, suffocated, dismembered, and removed from the consulate in pieces by agents of the Saudi government in a gruesome act of retribution for his criticism of the regime. His remains have still not been located.
U.S. intelligence quickly came to the conclusion that Khashoggi had been killed on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who controls the kingdom’s vast intelligence and security apparatus and effectively runs the country on behalf of his aging father, King Salman. Prince Mohammed has maintained that he had no knowledge of the plot to murder his prominent U.S.-based critic — a claim U.N. investigators described as “inconceivable” in their report on the incident, published in June.
Yet in the absence of a “smoking gun” or an outright admission of guilt, the prince has managed for the past year to avoid accountability for his role in this atrocity, and neither he nor the government he leads is likely to ever face any meaningful consequences for it. If anything, the millennial princeling who styles himself “MBS” has gotten everything he wanted out of Khashoggi’s murder and then some.
The extent to which MBS has won this battle was hammered home in recent days with the airing of two interviews, one conducted with PBS’ Frontline last December as part of a documentary released this week, and another with CBS’ 60 Minutes. The prince reiterated that he had nothing to do with the killing but accepted “responsibility” for it because it happened on his watch. The prince was surely a “good get” for these outlets, but their hardball questions masked the reality that these interviews were PR plays for MBS, giving him the chance to put his spin on Khashoggi’s murder, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and his own record of jailing and torturing activists.
Sure, there were some upfront costs to rubbing out Khashoggi. Nobody was supposed to know for sure that he had been killed, much less how. MBS hadn’t counted on Turkish intelligence having bugged the building and being able to produce audio evidence of the crime almost immediately after it happened; naturally, that led to a great deal of bad press for the prince. He still has to answer the occasional tough question about it, as he did in recent interviews, but he is still free to dissemble and mislead, while his critics have been systematically silenced.
The negative exposure last year put a damper on Saudi Arabia’s annual Future Investment Initiative conference, which took place just a few weeks after Khashoggi’s murder; a number of high-profile, big-company CEOs and international public figures sat out “Davos in the Desert” last year, preferring not to be seen palling around with a fellow billionaire who had just been caught red-handed in a grisly murder plot out of concern for their personal and corporate brands.
At the time, the backlash stoked the wishful thought that the business community might show the crown prince some real punishment. But the no-shows at last year’s conference did not, do not, and never will really care about Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human-rights record or the fact that MBS almost certainly had a journalist cut into pieces with a bone saw. These CEOs didn’t skip the conference last year because their hosts were murderers, but rather because their murders were currently in the news.
By now, the news cycle has long moved on, the public’s attention is on other things, and it is safe for the bigwigs to head back to Riyadh for this year’s conference, the Washington Post reports. Many of the companies that famously stayed away last year are sending representatives this year. Needless to say, MBS’s fellow princeling, Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of President Donald Trump, will be in attendance.
These doyens of the global investor class are framing their return to Saudi Arabia as some kind of noble effort to help the country diversify its economy and promote the liberalizing reforms of which MBS has positioned himself as a champion. Yet while the good people at JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and BlackRock may have a passing interest in improving the lives of Saudi Arabia’s have-nots, it pales in comparison to their interest in the upcoming IPO of the Saudi national oil company, Aramco. The tens of billions of dollars of foreign investment that have poured into Saudi Arabia over the past decade have done absolutely nothing to improve political freedoms or human rights there. Meanwhile, foreign investment in Saudi Arabia more than doubled last year, so whatever moral crisis investors had about the Khashoggi scandal was as ineffectual as it was short-lived.
Perhaps most importantly, Saudi Arabia still enjoys the full support of the U.S. government. Trump is among the few people who have accepted Prince Mohammed’s claim that he did not orchestrate Khashoggi’s death. An extensive phone conversation between the two men from last year is among the calls the White House has kept under wraps for suspicious reasons, so we may find out more about what Trump really thought (or knew) about the incident if that transcript comes out in the course of an impeachment investigation, but it probably won’t tell us much we don’t already know.
After all, Trump has been pretty candid about his reasoning for standing by the Saudis: They buy a lot of American weapons, and they “pay cash.” (They also happen to be spending a lot of money at his hotels). Congress has attempted to end sales of armaments to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and other U.S. support for their war in Yemen, but Trump vetoed one such resolution in May and three more in July.
Once again, the economics are in MBS’s favor. The richer and more powerful you are, the easier it is to escape consequences for your bad acts — and we’re talking about one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. As with the attendees at this year’s edition of “Davos in the Desert,” when Trump looks at Saudi Arabia, the dollar signs swimming before his eyes distract from the ugliness in the background. Doing business with the Saudis is simply too lucrative a proposition to pass up; if that means looking the other way while journalists and activists are tortured or murdered, so be it.
In any case, the target audience for Khashoggi’s assassination was not the Trump administration or the global financial industry, but rather all other citizens of Saudi Arabia who dare to criticize the crown prince or his agenda. When Khashoggi paid the ultimate price for his pretty mild and constructive criticism of the regime, it sent a clear message to all other current and would-be dissenters that their opinions would not be tolerated and that even those who left Saudi Arabia would be hunted down abroad. Dozens of Saudi journalists remain in prison. In July, Reporters Without Borders ranked the kingdom 172nd out of 180 countries in its press freedom index — and the government complained.
A previous version of this story implied that Crown Prince Mohammed’s interview with PBS’s Frontline was conducted as part of a recent public relations campaign. Frontline interviewed the prince off-camera last December as part of a documentary that was released online last Saturday and televised on Tuesday.