The Middle East has reached its “darkest point in decades” two years on from the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, an ally has warned.
Friday, October 2, marked two years since the brutal killing of the author and journalist, but one insider who knew him personally has told Daily Star Online that his death has only strengthened the hand of the regime.
Khashoggi, 59, was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2, 2018, in a killing which the CIA concluded was ordered by the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Speaking to Daily Star Online, Nader Hashemi from DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now), the organisation Khashoggi had been setting up when he was killed, warned that the Middle East is now at its “darkest point in decades”.
Mr Hashemi, who is also the director for the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, also claimed that US President Donald Trump ‘s refusal to hold his ally Saudi Arabia to account has further emboldened autocratic regimes in the region.
Speaking from the United States, Hashemi said that DAWN, which was finally created this week, two years on from Khashoggi’s death, was set up to honour his legacy.
“We won’t let his death be in vain,” he said. “Turn tragedy into victory, use the outrage over his murder to trigger change.”
Writing this week in The Intercept, journalist Sarah Aziza warned that DAWN faces an uphill struggle to have their voices heard in Washington DC, where they are based, as pro-democracy Arab groups are frequently muscled out by the power of Saudi influence and money.
Accepting this, Hashemi added: “Saudi and Gulf Nation financial contributions to the United States are enormous.”
He also said that for the Saudis, along with other regimes in the Middle East, “their future security is tied onto support from the west, especially the United States”.
Hashemi blamed Saudi lobbyists in Washington DC of working to “prevent regional democratisation”.
But, he insisted, the fight to get heard in DC has become easier, and forces calling for greater democracy in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East can now get a “fair hearing”.
Increasingly, many people are calling for the ending of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, many of which are used in the country’s brutal involvement in the civil war in neighbouring Yemen.
The legacy of 9/11 – where 15 of the bombers were from Saudi Arabia – and concerns over the spread of Wahabbism have also sparked a change in many people’s minds.
But, warns Hashemi, one of the biggest obstacles to greater democracy in the Arab world is now US President Donald Trump.
The president has been accused of shielding Khashoggi’s killers, as well as of offering tacit support to the Saudi regime.
He says Trump’s decision to make his first foreign visit as president to Saudi Arabia, where he praised not only Bin Salman but also the autocratic Bahraini regime, “sent a signal” to dictators in the Middle East that they would not be stopped by the United States.
Hashemi cites the story of one activist arrested in Bahrain during the subsequent clampdown on human rights, who was told by his torturer: “Trump is in power now, we can do what we want.”
“This is the darkest moment for the Middle East in my lifetime,” Hashemi warned.
He also argued that dissidents and opposition activists in Saudi Arabia are still living in fear of befalling a fate similar to that of Khashoggi.
In the past few months, two Saudi citizens critical of the regime living in exile in Canada were targeted by death squads ordered by the regime.
Former major-general and adviser to the deposed Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Saad bin Khalid Al Jabry, was warned at the last minute of a hit squad coming to assassinate him.
While Khashoggi’s friend Omar Abdulaziz was also tipped off by Canadian authorities that a Saudi team of hitmen had been intercepted.
“There is no doubt Trump’s victory made authoritarian regimes feel empowered,” Hashemi said.
But, he said, the status quo is sparking more anger in the region.
“Remember, Jamal didn’t start out as a dissident, but he became disillusioned with his country,” he added.
And he said that a Joe Biden victory wouldn’t necessarily result in a major change in practice, even if the tone of the US government towards Saudi Arabia changes.
“We may see more anti-Saudi rhetoric under Biden, but now seismic policy shifts,” he said.
But, if Trump wins the US election, Hashemi warned, it will make it harder for DAWN.
After his death, the Washington Post published the last article Khashoggi had been working on.
In it, he said that what the Arab world is crying out for most is free expression.
Now, two years on, Hashemi believes Khashoggi’s dream is further away than ever.