The controversy surrounding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is approaching a tipping point.
Either the outcry over the brutal state murder of a dissident journalist will increase and Saudi Arabia will feel the sting of sanctions and isolation. Or Riyadh’s critics, Canada and the United States included, will let the Saudis' dubious narrative of events take hold, in turn allowing them to maintain business as usual with the autocratic kingdom.
Saudi Arabia, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is spinning Mr. Khashoggi’s death as a rogue interrogation-gone-wrong inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Those responsible for the unauthorized misadventure, and for trying to cover it up, have been fired or disciplined, according to the country’s foreign minister. The Crown Prince even made a condolences call to Mr. Khashoggi’s son.
But the Saudis have not been able to counter compelling evidence produced by the Turkish government suggesting that Mr. Khashoggi, who went to the consulate to collect personal papers, was seized by 15 waiting Saudi government agents, tortured and deliberately killed.
The Crown Prince, the power behind the throne sat on by his ailing father, insists he had nothing to do with anything. But some of the men involved are known to be close to him, and it seems unlikely he was clueless about so elaborate a plan.
Canada and the United States have duly condemned the premeditated killing. The game for them and others now is to wait and see if the ever-evolving Saudi version of events is able to cast reasonable doubt about the need to respond further. Ottawa wants to protect a $15-billion deal – and the 2,000 jobs it represents – to provide armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The United States has its own defence contracts to maintain, as well as a critical strategic alliance. Neither wants to jeopardize its interests by imposing sanctions and risking a reprisal or loss of influence.
This is the moment, then, that we find out whether the assassination of a prominent state critic in a consulate on foreign soil is beyond the pale and requires action that rises above self-interest, or is something that can be cynically worked around. Diplomacy and the arms trade have never been pretty, but they rarely get this ugly.