The Current

Critics say the West has failed to keep pressure on Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi killing

In the year since journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, critics say that Western democracies have demanded too little accountability from the Saudi government.

Governments and businesses eager to resume business as usual, says journalist

Prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed moments after entering the Saudi embassy in Oct., 2018. Since then, a number of family members of people detained by the Saudi government have come forward. (AFP/Getty Images)

For months after her brother was arrested without a warrant in Riyadh, Areej al-Sadhan says she and her family kept quiet. 

That was in March, 2018, and the family hoped they could discreetly get word from Saudi authorities about what had happened to him.

Al-Sadhan's brother, Abdulrahman, was a humanitarian worker with the Red Crescent and had never made any public statements against the government, she says, so her family assumed there must be some kind of misunderstanding.

But six months later, when journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi was killed moments after entering the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, "our fears just went to the roof," al-Sadhan told The Current's guest host Duncan McCue.

She remembers thinking that "if this could happen to a Saudi journalist … what is happening right now to my brother?'" 

Areej and Abdulraham al-Sadhan, at Abdulraham's university graduation in California. (Submitted by Areej al-Sadhan)

Earlier this year, al-Sadhan made the difficult decision to go public with her brother's story in hopes of pushing the government to give them information.

She's one of a number of relatives of detained people in Saudi Arabia who say that Khashoggi's death motivated them to speak up.

"I was thinking, 'Well, if those people cannot talk, and I cannot talk, then who is going to talk?'" she said.

Now, on the one-year anniversary of Khashoggi's death, many critics say too many unanswered questions remain about his killing and about the fates of other people detained by the regime, and are calling out Western democracies for failing to demand accountability from the Saudi government.

Pressure 'has not been sustained' 

Ahmed Benchemsi, a former investigative journalist now working with Human Rights Watch, told The Current that while international pressure in the months following Khashoggi's death was effective in pushing Saudi authorities to accept responsibility for his killing, "it seems that the pressure has not been sustained."

"Many governments and businesses are just eager to resume business as usual and returning to their profit-making activities in Saudi Arabia," Benchemsi said.

Bechemsi said Human Rights Watch, the U.N. and other groups are still pushing Saudi Arabia to address unanswered questions about the death, including about the involvement of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

They are also demanding details about the ongoing trial of the people charged with Khashoggi's murder.

"It's a trial that is shrouded in secrecy and we don't even know the names of the people who are indicted," he said.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently took "responsibility" for Jamal Khashoggi's killing, but denied ordering it. (Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via Reuters)

The Current requested comment from the Saudi embassy in Ottawa about a UN report asserting the Saudi government was responsible for the killing, and about the disappearance of dissidents, but did not receive a response. 

Bechemsi says that the international community already has the leverage that it needs to hold the Saudi government accountable.

"There should be targeted sanctions on members of the Saudi leadership responsible for human rights violations ... and these sanctions should be maintained until the violations end," he said.

'Empty' gestures 

Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said that while many Western democracies are paying lip service to defending human rights in Saudi Arabia, few are actually willing to do anything that would risk hurting their trade relationship with the country.

"There's a lot of rhetoric, a lot of so-called commitments out there but they're quite empty at the end of the day," she said. 

Momani gave the example of pledges by Denmark, Finland and Germany to stop selling arms to the country — which she says means little given that they never engaged in major arms trade with Saudi Arabia in the first place. 

Canada has also been ambivalent on the arms trade issue, she said.

While the federal government said last December that it was reviewing its $15 billion contract to sell light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi's death, it has yet to give any updates on that review. 

"There is an enormous amount of hypocrisy going on when it comes to us all espousing great human rights values but still selling armaments," she said.

Momani added that it's not just the Liberals that she believes are equivocating on the issue. Weeks away from the Canadian federal election, she said, "none of the political parties really want to touch this sincerely."

Al-Sadhan says she is having trouble believing that Khashoggi's killers will be brought to justice, or that she will find out what happened to her brother.  

"We are looking at a one year anniversary after this horrific murder and still human rights just keep declining in Saudi Arabia."

"I'm usually an optimistic person," she added. "But until we start to see actual change, then we are realistic."

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin, Jennifer Chen and Alison Masemann.