Jamal Khashoggi, as everyone now knows, was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2nd. He has not been seen since and the inevitable conclusion is that he has been murdered. A great many people are upset about this, including President Trump. Indeed, what is of great interest here is that the people who are protesting the most loudly are Saudi Arabia’s friends and allies. And the reason for this is because they are the people who have the most to lose. Saudi Arabia’s enemies (that means Iran and countries friendly to Iran) must be rubbing their hands with glee, for if Mr Khashoggi has been murdered, it simply serves to illustrate what they have always maintained – that Saudi Arabia is not a civilised and law-abiding country.
As readers of this magazine will know, the West’s longstanding attachment to Saudi Arabia is deeply hypocritical. Saudi Arabia denies religious freedom – the only Catholic Church in the country is in the Italian Embassy. Saudi Arabia is currently engaged in war in Yemen, using British made weapons, with scant regard for civilian casualties. And the list goes on. Yes, it is true that women will now be allowed to drive in the kingdom, but this should not blind us to all the other things that happen there, which should surely be unacceptable to Western sensibilities. But the West has double standards: what would be utterly unacceptable here – for example, the death penalty for witchcraft – is ignored if practised by the Saudis. The West seems to think that morality is something that does not transcend borders. Actually, it does, but this becomes an inconvenient truth when money enters the equation.
Hence the anger and distress over the Khashoggi case, which makes turning a blind eye to the misdemeanours of Saudi Arabia that bit harder. After all, the governments of the West have swallowed (indeed enabled) the war in Yemen, and put up with a great deal else, but the sheer effrontery of the Khashoggi case may be too much to bear. Even hypocrisy has its breaking points.
Once upon a time, many years ago, there was talk of an ethical foreign policy. The trouble is that morality is perceived as having a price tag attached. How can we be ethical without endangering trade with Saudi Arabia and its notoriously thin-skinned rulers? But it is worthwhile remembering that a foreign policy which takes no account of morality also exacts a price. If Britain and America are seen to pander to a power that murders its own citizens, if it assents to this culture of impunity, what will be the enduring result? The global reputational damage will be immense. That, in the long term, will cost us all more. The West needs to distance itself from Saudi Arabia, and urgently. Such a move is long overdue.