Do you want to know what you should do if you want to get a handle on this week’s story about the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi? Get on Google maps and punch up Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. It’s a metropolis of six million residents located about 500 miles northeast of the holy city of Mecca, and about 300 miles west of the Persian Gulf. These days, it’s a modern city, with two of the tallest skyscrapers in Saudi Arabia, the 99-story Kingdom Tower, and the 1,000-foot Burj Rafah, which features 474 condominiums and a 350 room five-star hotel, the Kempinski.
This article first appeared in Salon.
The city is bisected by one of the country’s few major highways, Route 65. Go south about 30 miles, and Route 65 ends in the town of Al Kharj. South of there, all the way to the border with Yemen, there is nothing but sand. Oh, there are a couple of little settlements in the desert — Layla, and then Wadi ad-Dawasir. But to the east, all the way to Oman and the Persian Gulf, nothing but sand. Zoom in, and you’ll see that the sand drifts in long, wave-like dunes for miles and miles and miles. But there’s nothing else there. No water. No vegetation. No towns. Nothing.
Head north on Route 65 out of Riyadh, and a couple dozen towns are strung out along the road for about two hundred miles. Then the low hills and settlements and a few irrigated farms end, and there’s nothing but sand, a great swath of it, running east and south, mile after mile of shifting dunes and . . . nothing.
It’s the great, empty nothingness when you drive Route 65 out of Riyadh that tells you why Saudi Arabia thinks it can get away with killing Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its embassy in Turkey last week. Saudi Arabia is one of the most isolated, barren countries on the face of the earth. It has been inhospitable to outsiders for centuries. The Muslim world has to deal with them because Mecca and Medina, the holy places of Islam, are within its borders. The rest of the world has to deal with them because they’ve got oil. But beyond that, they don’t give a damn what we think, because they don’t have to.
The Arabian peninsula has been a barren, sandy wasteland for millennia, isolated from the rest of the world by its inhospitable geography. As recently as 40 years ago, it was nearly impossible to travel to Saudi Arabia. I wanted to go there from Beirut, when I was in the Middle East in 1974-75. I went to the Saudi embassy and asked about a visa, and they sent me to the offices of ARAMCO, the Arabian American Oil Company. They were located in a modern building on one of Beirut’s main streets, and the guys at ARAMCO told me that basically, if I wasn’t doing business with them in Saudi Arabia, forget it. I told them I was a journalist, and all I wanted to do was see the country. Journalist! They just laughed and pointed to the door.
The Saudis appear to be stiff-arming the world about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance after he entered their embassy in Istanbul seeking a document that he needed in order to marry his fiancé. They admit that he entered the embassy on Tuesday, October 2, but claim he left later, and they don’t know what happened to him. His fiancé was waiting outside the embassy entrance. She never saw him again after he went inside.
Turkish sources told the Washington Post on Thursday that they have audio and video recordings of Khashoggi being interrogated, tortured and then killed inside the Saudi embassy shortly after he entered on October 2.
There were other reports that a 15-man “security team” traveled to Istanbul from Saudi Arabia on two private jets the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance, and returned shortly afterward. There is speculation that the Saudi agents were sent to kidnap Khashoggi and return him to Saudi Arabia, but when he showed up at the embassy, that plan was scrapped, and they simply killed him there. One of the members of the so-called “security team” was a forensics expert who carried with him a surgical saw into the embassy. It is thought that the saw was used to dismember Khashoggi’s body after he was murdered.
Khashoggi has been a frequent critic of Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen. He has also been critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the current ruler of Saudi Arabia. MBS, as he is known, locked up hundreds of Saudi businessmen and members of the royal family in 2017 in a so-called crackdown on corruption. According to the New York Times, the Saudi government subjected the detainees to “coercion and physical abuse” to extort money from them.
This is what dictators do. Russian President Vladimir Putin orders the deaths of reporters critical of his regime and poisons dissidents and critics on foreign soil. Mohammed bin Salman rounds up his political enemies in Saudi Arabia and uses torture to extort money from them and kills a dissident reporter in one of his embassies overseas.
What is Donald Trump’s reaction to the barbarism of these dictators? Putin’s a great guy, a “strong leader.” He practically abdicates the presidency to him in Helsinki and wants to have him over to the White House. And Mohammed bin Salman? Another great guy. He plastered pictures of Trump all over Riyadh when he visited the Saudi capital last year, and he made a phony “deal” to buy $110 billion in advanced American armaments, a deal with no contract that has produced zero sales so far. Trump told reporters on Thursday that Khashoggi wasn’t “a United States citizen,” and he didn’t want to do anything that would endanger the $110 billion Saudi weapons deal because it would be bad for the economy.
Trump isn’t going to be any more eager for sanctions on Saudi Arabia than he was for sanctions on Russia. But the Saudis have made the mistake of ignoring a rule that the Mafia learned decades ago. You don’t kill cops, and you don’t kill journalists, because neither the police or newspapers will ever let it go. They’ll stay on the murder of one of their own until the killer is tracked down and brought to justice.
That’s what happened when Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered by extremists in Karachi, Pakistan in 2002. The Journal and American law enforcement officials kept the pressure on the Pakistanis, and in less than a month, three suspects were arrested. A few months later they were tried and convicted in the death of Pearl.
The Washington Post has pledged not to rest until Khashoggi’s killers are brought to justice. But it doesn’t look like they’ll get much help from the White House. Shortly after Trump wrote off Khashoggi as “not an American citizen” on Thursday, he was sitting down to lunch with Kanye West and Kid Rock. By three o’clock on Friday, Trump was on his way to another rally, this one in Cincinnati, Ohio. He will doubtlessly be golfing on Saturday and Sunday, that is, if he isn’t jetting off on Air Force One to more political rallies.
So let the word go out to dictators around the world: flatter Donald Trump, and do deals with him — even phony deals with no contracts — and you can get away with murde