In a trial that was not open, and in which the accused were not even named, a Saudi court sentenced five persons to death on Monday and sent three to prison in the case of the cold-blooded murder of the dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, last year. Incredibly, the White House sees this as an “important” development that upholds the principle of “accountability”.
President Donald Trump’s response is all the more surprising since the CIA had held that the murder committed by those in the security apparatus was pre-meditated and is likely to have been ordered by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the most powerful man in Saudi Arabia. The trial has exonerated two top intelligence officials, one of whom is a key aide to Prince Mohammed.
A UN expert who has followed the case as well as human rights bodies have called the trial a “sham” while letting the culprits at the top get away. From what’s been reported of the available evidence, this seems a fair assessment.
If the US President has departed from this mainline view of the murder that roiled opinion in the West, it is probably because Riyadh is America’s most important ally in the Arab world and the US would like to get on with it.
Keeping on the same side as Saudi Arabia may be deemed important since the present US administration maintains a stance of implacable hostility toward Iran, which Riyadh regards as its worst enemy with which conciliation is neither possible nor desirable. It is probable that other Western governments will take their cue from Washington. Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi have already gone out of their way to embrace Prince Salman personally. He is the one they will be dealing with in the long term.
Saudi Arabia is a police state. Its social mores too are not those of democratic life. The sentencing in the Khashoggi case is probably the farthest it can go even under pressure to appease the Western conscience.