The disappearance in Saudi hands of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and columnist for the Washington Post, has sparked outrage in the United States. But the U.S. should have made clear long before this that Riyadh’s position as a U.S. ally was not a free pass to abuse human rights and international norms.
Instead, Western countries seemed to have pegged the hopes of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman being the reformer that he made himself out to be, and without too much attention to what was actually happening on the ground.
It is now clear just what the Saudis have been doing with U.S. military technology in their destructive bombing campaign in Yemen. They have killed thousands, not just as collateral damage, but by pursuing civilian targets, such as school buses and funerals. They are using child soldiers and torturing detainees. Despite international investigations and a growing mountain of evidence, Washington seems to have turned a blind eye to a difficult ally complete with a fictitious conviction that the UAE and Saudi Arabia had taken steps to limit civilian casualties.
It’s true that pushing back on the Saudi government over the war in Yemen, the treatment of activists, and now the apparent murder of a high-profile critic, would complicate the relationship with Saudi Arabia, a key ally and part of the U.S. strategy in the Middle East. But, at some point, the U.S. has to show it has some standards in choosing its friends, and that allies will be held accountable. Important deals, including the upcoming arms shipment worth $14.5 billion, are not a license to act in violation of international laws and norms.
Of course, given the tense situation and seriousness of allegations, the United States must act delicately. Perhaps strongly worded international calls will be ineffectual and only breed additional resentment. Perhaps they would be seen as a challenge to the authority to the crown prince. Either way, the U.S. has many options when it comes to pressuring allies and here, the solution must not be nothing. Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed must be held accountable.
Indeed, persistent U.S. inaction on the war in Yemen, combined with a failure to support Canada’s calls for human rights for activists this summer, might have emboldened Saudi Arabia to act against Khashoggi, or it at least hasn't discouraged such actions. Continued inaction will only give the crown prince the green light for further violations of international norms and laws — including extrajudicial killings.
Why bother to even pretend to play by the rules if no one will stop you?