Opinion: Why is Nigeria silent on Khashoggi’s killing? – By TAYO OKE
Saudi Arabia conjures up two truisms in people’s minds: First, that, it is a country of fabulous wealth; the second largest producer of oil in the world after the USA (incidentally, also, the world’s largest consumer of the product). After that, we have Russia, China and Canada at some distance behind. Saudi Arabia has one quarter of the world’s proven oil reserves; 260 billion barrels, after Venezuela; 297 billion. Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading oil exporter, and is the most authoritative voice in the largest oil cartel in the world, the Organisation for Petroleum Exporting Countries. It has a Gross Domestic Product of over $US600bn (more than the whole of Africa combined), and a per capita income of over $US20,000. On a more personal note, the Saudi King’s personal wealth is estimated at around $US 17bn, while the ruling House of Saud is estimated to be worth close to $US1tn.
The second truism is that it is a deeply religious country. In pre-Islam Saudi Arabia, there was multiplicity of worship, or Polytheism (deities, god, goddesses, shrines etc. Christianity, Judaism, Iranian religions). Modern Saudi Arabia is a strict Islamic theocracy, with Sunni Islam serving as its official state religion. Non-Muslims cannot become Saudi citizens, public worship of alternative religions is forbidden, even, religious items associated with other faiths are equally forbidden. The country adheres to the ‘original’ interpretation of Islam propounded by Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, known as “Wahhabism”, out of which a number of terrorist groupings was thought to have emerged, most notably, Al Qaida, of which the late Osama bin Laden was leader.
It is thus within the above context that “Wahhabism”, and by extension, Saudi Arabia, is seen by some as a “Conservative”, retrogressive society, and others see it as “Reactionary” and anti-progress. Neither is useful for the country’s current political (and economic) desires. This is the genesis of the Kingdom’s ‘image’ problem, and a yearning to remake (rebrand if you like) it as an investment-friendly, welcoming business hub for Western capital. Its hard-line, religion-inspired policies on press freedom, public morality, freedom of assembly, and general human rights denials have become albatrosses around the neck of the country’s new-broom, new-breed ruling click. Women are subordinate to men in all areas of human endeavour, it is a country where, until recently, they were not even allowed to drive, let alone go out anywhere unaccompanied by a male guardian. Saudi Arabia maintains close ties with Western governments, who nurse an obsessive opposition to “Islamic radicalism” in the Middle East. The country is being backed and supported in its defence and security by an armoury of weapons from America and other Western powers. They see the country as a key ally in their concerted effort to curb the neighbouring Iran from imposing its own version of Islam (Shia) on the rest of the region.
Western governments, of course, do lucrative business with Saudi Arabia, and are always at ‘pains’ to look away at the human rights records of the rulers of the country, preferring to make their opposition known to the Monarchy in private conversation and engagement rather than in public. The House of Saud, the ruling family, on the other hand, has been trying to shed the image of the fuddy-duddy, obdurate, tin-pot dictator it has acquired across the world over time. It has enacted legislation to relax some of the strict interpretation of Islamic codes and also tried to expand electoral franchise to bring in more women into elective office. But, despite this, the country has retained its unfavourable ratings in the field of human rights and freedom of the individual. It needed a young, charismatic Crown Prince to step into the limelight and sweep the Kingdom with an unwavering modernising broom. Enter Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud (Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia).
At the age of 33 years, the Crown Prince is the heir apparent to the present King Salman. He is highly thought of as a “reformer” and pro-West in his foreign and defence policies. Many other Arab states, though, see the Kingdom as a bastion of religious conservatism, and the Kingdom’s long-standing association with the US viewed with deep suspicion by many of its neighbours, especially Iran. Whilst not accelerating full throttled on a restructuring of political institutions in the country, the Prince has embarked upon an agenda aimed at loosening the grip on power by hard-line religious conservatives within the Kingdom. Argument continues to rage between the so-called moderates and Conservative thinkers across the Arab world over the extent of the region’s modernisation agenda, and over whether, in fact, “democracy” is compatible with Islam.
There is no doubt, however, that the Prince has embarked upon incremental reform, which religious conservatives in the country find alarming, but which critics inside and outside find rather tame and slow-paced. This is where Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist exiled in the US until his death inside the Saudi Arabia Embassy in Turkey on October 2, 2018, comes into light. Khashoggi had been generally supportive of the reform process in his home country, but had also been overtly critical of its pace. He wrote a regular column for the influential “Washington Post” in America, and was a regular guest at lecture circuits inside and outside the US. He had been critical of the hard-line religious leaders in his home country, especially the “Salafist”, who regard democracy as “un-Islamic”, as it represents a rejection of religious values to the faithful.
“Indeed, we are living in the age of authoritarianism” Khashoggi said in a lecture at the University of Denver, Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy, USA, in April 2018. “Today, around a dinner table in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman, you hear ‘Liberal’ intellectuals who once supported liberty, political change and democracy say Arabs are not ready for democracy”, he further stated. He directed his main ire against the “strong leader” and “benevolent autocracy” mentality gaining currency in the Arab region, which some inside the Kingdom may have interpreted as an oblique reference to the Crown Prince and his reform agenda. The Saudi authorities first denied any involvement in the subsequent disappearance of the journalist, then, gradually changed their tune and have now admitted the murder of Khashoggi by “rogue intelligence operatives”, many of whom are now “under arrest”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an address to his country’s Parliament last Tuesday said Saudi agents had planned the “savage” murder of Jamal Khashoggi “several days in advance”. In other words, it was neither an accident nor the unintended outcome of some “fist fight” inside the embassy. No one is now really arguing about that. Much of the rest of the world have voiced their disdain for the dastardly act, except, the Federal Republic of Nigeria and a number of others.
No press statement, no official releases, no comment from President Muhammadu Buhari; nothing from the Nigerian government simply to say we condemn the murder of a journalist by the operatives of a friendly ally. Saudi Arabia can indeed be considered a friend to Nigeria on many fronts. It is the destination of choice for our Northern elites, not only for religious exigencies alone, but also cultural and socio-economic inter-mingling. With the exception of geography, it could even be argued that Northern Nigeria has more in common with Saudi Arabia than they do with Southern Nigeria. But, granted the justifiable closeness on some level, what sin, what atrocity, does Saudi Arabia need to commit to warrant condemnation by our government? An innocent man has been murdered in cold blood. What does it say to our leaders’ attitude towards press freedom and fundamental rights in their own yard? President Buhari, please speak up, speak up for all of us, Nigerians, on this unspeakable act of barbarism by Saudi Arabia.
Mr. President, your silence is deafening. Punch