Since the apparent murder-disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, analysts have focused primarily on the implications for US-Saudi relations and the future of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s vision for domestic reforms. Absent from policy discussions and analysis is the impact of brutally silencing a mild critic of an autocratic regime on the psyche of 450 million Arabs, most of whom still live under regimes that severely limit freedoms of speech, protest, political participation, and religion.
Yet just as the recent testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was a trigger for survivors of sexual assault, the murder-disappearance of Khashoggi is a trigger for the millions of Arabs who are survivors of autocratic regimes. For them, the unapologetic silencing of a citizen who critiqued his country’s policies is a reminder of the reality they face on a daily basis: the inability to practice the most basic forms of expression, let alone engage in nonviolent protest or direct criticism of their rulers and government.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump instead highlighted the importance of US weapon sales to Saudi Arabia, which would total approximately $110 billion over the next ten years for US defense companies. He made it clear that if Congress were to impose sanctions, Saudi Arabia could easily turn to China and Russia, dealing the United States a significant economic blow. Others have noted, with evidence mounting of the Kingdom’s responsibility for the disappearance of Khashoggi, how self-defeating this strategy is for the Saudi monarchy as it attempts to reclaim its role as leader of the Arab world and head of the anti-Iran alliance.
The calculated reactions to the Khashoggi case are a painful reminder that the world views the Middle East in purely transactional ways and responds only when a crime is so brazen that it is impossible to look the other way. It is a reminder that if Khashoggi, an elite who enjoyed connections inside and outside high-level Saudi circles, could not protect himself from disappearing in broad daylight on foreign soil, then there is little hope for the budding Arab journalist or civic activist striving for the freedoms that the West continues to hold so dear and shame the Arab world for not having.
Indeed, Khashoggi’s case has caused an international outcry due to the gruesome and brazen nature of the alleged crime and, more importantly, his name recognition and relationships throughout the Arab world and in Washington where he penned columns for the Washington Post. While journalists in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Morocco, and Gulf countries have been silenced through a variety of means—from losing jobs to being thrown in jail to being forcibly disappeared—the majority do not have the benefit of connections around the world or a diplomatic scandal to bring attention to their plight. Countless others engage in self-censorship whether at home or abroad, fearful of the deadly consequences for themselves and their families.
Ironically, the Khashoggi incident is a reminder that while young Arabs would be lauded if they contributed to their country’s vision for economic and social reform by, for example, launching a startup or making internationally acclaimed films, if they decide to speak out about the repression that suffocates them they will likely face torture in Damascus, jail in Cairo, or a quiet disappearance in corners of the Gulf. In fact, over the past week, warnings came through Saudi state television and social media accounts, with political figures threatening their viewers and followers against “isolating” or insulting Saudi Arabia in light of these “foolish” allegations and “fake news.”
These not so subtle messages aim to instill fear in the hearts and minds of young Arabs, alluding to a fate similar to Khashoggi’s for anyone who crosses the line. Manal Al-Sharif, the Saudi woman who led the effort to advocate for women to drive in the Kingdom, expressed the hopelessness that many in the Arab world felt while watching the Khashoggi case unfold: “I’m thankful that I left the region just in time. If you too can leave with what’s left from your sanity and dignity, please do. Don’t fight the system, don’t have hopes, don’t speak up, don’t dream, don’t breathe, just leave.”
Two years ago, the Atlantic Council’s Albright-Hadley Middle East Strategy Task Force recommended a new strategic approach to the region that “emphasizes political and economic transformation, and requires profound reforms of states in the region.” The Task Force recognized that this was no easy feat: “These are difficult undertakings requiring strong encouragement from supportive external powers. Yet unless regional states move resolutely toward an updated social contract that empowers citizens and enshrines accountability, the investment being made in the region’s human capital will not bear fruit.”
How can we help unlock the Middle East’s human potential when a dark cloud of repression hangs over the people of the region? Many analysts have tiptoed around Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, carefully lauding its ambitious economic and social reforms, while arguing that political reform is a secondary necessity. Very few historical examples show that to be the case, and there are also few examples of political change yielding quick economic growth. The post-Arab Spring transitions have shown that change does not come without significant challenges as well as immediate costs for us in the West.
In the short run, a fragile new “democracy” in the Middle East may not be as Western friendly as we would like it to be, but, in the long run, countries that allow their citizens the freedom to express themselves are more likely to yield stability and security for the region and its allies. As long as a cloud of repression keeps journalists from critiquing their governments and activists from holding officials accountable, there will be little hope of winding down the conflicts and unrest in the Middle East, much less unlocking the economic and creative potential of the region.
Tuqa Nusairat is the deputy director for the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow her @tuqanusairat.