Maeve Higgins: Why is a Saudi prince being fawned over as journalists die?

What does it mean when a state murders a journalist, and other states accept this and move along with the business of the day?
Maeve Higgins: Why is a Saudi prince being fawned over as journalists die?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets US President Joe Biden with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last month. Picture: Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP

By all accounts, except his own, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Watching Mohammed bin Salman smirk and fistbump and backslap his way around various world leaders these past weeks has been grotesque. The UN Human Rights Council investigated and concluded that “there is no indication under international law that this crime could be qualified under any other way but as a state killing”.

Since then, the prince laid low and waited for the furore over the killing to dissipate. Thanks to the world’s economies’ slavish reliance on oil, an addiction that takes precedence over pretty much everything else, that didn’t take long.

US presidents historically talk tough on Saudi Arabia but always end up back in the Kingdom’s arms. It was still jarring to see Joe Biden — who swore bin Salman would be “a pariah” — trot along and visit the prince at home, complete with a cute greeting out front of the palace.

What does it mean when a state murders a journalist, and other states accept this and move along with the business of the day?

European leaders were no better when it came down to it. Greek lawmakers positively romanced the murderous prince, taking him on a private nighttime tour of the Acropolis and catering to his every whim.

Yellow tape marks bullet holes on a tree and a portrait and flowers create a makeshift memorial at the site where Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed in Jenin in May. 

In an interview with Arab News, the development minister Adonis Georgiadis practically fell over himself, saying: “We are deeply honoured that his Royal Highness Mohammed bin Salman decided to visit Greece as his first trip to an EU country since 2018.”

Hmmm, what was it that happened in 2018 again that may have paused his gallivanting? Oh yes, that murder he ordered.

I understand the desperation felt by these politicians because of the impending energy crisis, but this is a dangerous path. Putin’s increasingly repressive regime was excused for many years because Europe needed his fossil fuels, and now look where we are. But the collective embrace of Mohammed bin Salman — from the top down — signifies new depths of complicity in state-sanctioned murders of journalists.

Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia is not alone in killing journalists with impunity. On May 11, Israeli soldiers shot and killed Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh while she was covering one of their army operations in Jenin, in the West Bank.

The beloved Palestinian-American journalist was wearing a vest and helmet marked “press” when she was killed, and so far, nobody has been arrested or charged. The Israelis falsely accused Palestinians of firing the shots that killed her, a claim that has been roundly disproven.

“We find that the shots that killed Abu Aqleh came from Israeli security forces,” the UN human rights office spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said.

It is deeply disturbing that Israeli authorities have not conducted a criminal investigation.

It is doubtful that they ever will, particularly when their powerful US allies are fine to stand by. This is shameful but telling. Throughout her career, Abu Aqleh covered the region’s conflict and politics but always focused on Palestinian lives and Palestinian stories.

In her own words, she said: “I chose journalism to be close to the people. It might not be easy to change the reality, but at least I could bring their voice to the world.”

Her work consistently threatened the powerful in Israel, where Palestinian voices are routinely silenced.

In a statement, the Al Jazeera Media Network, where she worked since 1997, called Abu Akleh’s killing a “blatant murder” and accused Israeli forces of targeting the veteran journalist with live fire and assassinating her in “cold blood”.

The Israeli army denies she was a target. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, appealing for the American government to do better, Abu Aqleh’s niece Lina Abu Akleh was frank.

“We are not naive; we know that the United States has failed to conduct its own investigations into previous killings of American citizens by Israeli soldiers and that the US government has helped Israel avoid accountability for decades of grave, systematic human rights abuses and violations of international law.”

Jamal Khashoggi was also a respected and prolific journalist. For decades, he lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, also acting as an adviser to the royal family there. Their relationship soured and fearing arrest in bin Salman’s burgeoning crackdown on dissenters, Khashoggi went into self-imposed exile in the US in 2017.

People hold posters of Jamal Khashoggi, near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, on the anniversary of his death. Picture: AP
People hold posters of Jamal Khashoggi, near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, on the anniversary of his death. Picture: AP

There, he regularly criticised Mohammed Bin Salman in the Washington Post, comparing him to Vladimir Putin for his repressive tactics. He called out other Saudi leaders for their greed and corruption, all the while fully understanding the risk, writing in his monthly column: “I have left my home, my family, and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot.” Khashoggi can no longer speak, but we still have his words.

Khashoggi’s final column for the paper was devastating in its prescience. He was writing specifically about the Arab world when he said: “A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative. Sadly, this situation is unlikely to change.”

He was right on all counts. Despite this, American and European leaders embrace the very people who killed him for saying so. When heads of state go to such great lengths to silence those who would tell the truth, and the rest of us accept this quietly, we need to ask why that is.

Why did Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh represent such a threat to Saudi Arabia and Israel, respectively? Why are Europeans and Americans still happy to cater to Saudi Arabia and to Israel?

The answers lie in the dead journalists’ work and that work is still here, still bearing witness, still telling the truth.

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