On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a much-anticipated speech addressing the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. While Turkish intelligence officials have implicated the Saudi government repeatedly in the weeks since Khashoggi’s death, Erdogan had so far remained equivocal. That changed on Tuesday, when he challenged the Saudi claim that Khashoggi’s was an accidental death, demanding answers for a series of unresolved questions about the case and resolving to uncover the “naked truth.”
Erdogan’s newly definitive stance cements the case of Khashoggi as a full-blown geopolitical crisis, centering on a cast of notoriously headstrong world leaders: Erdogan, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and U.S. President Donald Trump. Amid this ongoing brinkmanship — and as pundits weigh the possible future of U.S.-Saudi arms deals and the “balance” of Iran vis-a-vis its neighbors — Khashoggi’s own story is largely lost, along with those of the Saudi journalists and dissidents he has come to represent. Yet to overlook the context of Khashoggi’s exile and the Saudi government’s reasons for targeting him is to lose sight of another regional crisis: the vast, vicious, and systemic suppression of free speech in the Middle East.
Khashoggi’s last words — published posthumously in the Washington Post — decried this very crisis. He expounded on rising authoritarianism in his native Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East, where most of the region’s 420 million people are deprived of the right to free speech or genuine political expression. Seven years after the bracing but often hopeful upheavals of the so-called Arab Spring, Khashoggi lamented, most of the societies in the region are at least as oppressive as they were before the uprisings. Free speech and political expression in the Middle East are in desperate straits, with autocratic leaders directing brazen crackdowns on dissenters across the region. This phenomenon, of which Khashoggi’s death is a direct result, should be of grave and lasting concern to us all.
Regrettably, Khashoggi’s case, while shocking, was not altogether surprising for dissidents in the region. Not only do journalists and activists in the Middle East face daily peril in their home countries, but many continue to feel the menacing grip of their governments even after seeking refuge abroad. Numerous Saudis living abroad have told me of their experiences of being contacted — and even followed — by government operatives. Others have had their families threatened or arrested as retaliation for their speech or activism. A number of these Saudi citizens have also shared unsettling stories of attempts by government officials to lure them to meetings in their local Saudi consulates and embassies. For them, Khashoggi’s death has only confirmed the state’s ruthless determination to control the narrative of its citizens, wherever they may choose to speak. In recent weeks, many activists and writers have gone silent, shutting down social media accounts and cutting ties with news organization. There is no telling how long this chill will last, but many of the activists have privately spoken of despair.
Saudi Arabia is not alone in its drastic efforts to silence dissent. This summer, as Iraqis took to the streets to protest government corruption, the state shut down the internet in several major metropolitan areas, including Basra, Baghdad, and Kirkuk. Amnesty International reported that the blackout was designed “to prevent [protesters from] sharing footage and pictures of the excessive and unnecessary force used by security forces, including the use of live ammunition.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 123 journalists have been killed in Syria since 1992, while the Syrian Network for Human Rights documented more than 4,252 individual arbitrary arrests, most of them conducted by government forces, in 2017 alone. Journalists in Yemen are under attack from all sides of the conflict, while Bahrain maintains a longstanding practice of state censorship. Turkey remains the world’s top jailer of journalists, with 73 in prison, according to CJP. Egypt continues to detain members of the press for charges of “fake news” and “anti-state” activities, while viciously suppressing artists, academics, and activists. The list goes on.
The regional ramifications of these abuses are innumerable. Who can count the cost — and the danger — of multiple generations living and dying amid societies so devoid of free expression? What will the legacy be for a region so endlessly plundered and war-ravaged by foreign actors, on the one hand, and so ruthlessly suppressed by its own leaders, on the other?
Jamal Khashoggi believed the right to free speech was a necessity — both as a human right and a key to a better future for his country. It’s why he left the region in 2017: to maintain the integrity of his work as a journalist and avoid the further crackdowns he was sure would come (they did, and they are ongoing). Yet it’s also why he was in Turkey on October 2, the day of his disappearance: He had chosen to take a calculated risk by moving back to the region, closer to his home country, in order to work toward a more democratic Middle East. Khashoggi knew what reporters and activists still resisting state suppression in the region know: The status quo is untenable.
Yet, by thus far cooperating in Saudi Arabia’s self-contradictory cover-up and weighing economic concerns above human rights, the United States is directly upholding this status quo. In doing so, we not only betray our purported commitments to free speech and democracy abroad, but imperil ourselves by prolonging circumstances in which propaganda and extremism may thrive. Such a betrayal represents a dangerous gamble: giving societies over to undemocratic and abusive rulers and hoping that the resentment, poverty, and desperation that results will never come back to haunt us.