We live in an age where a leader can order a journalist to be torn apart and still remain an acceptable interlocutor. I’m talking about Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist killed on commission within the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom French President Emmanuel Macron will meet during his quick visit to the Persian Gulf (Arabia Saudi, United Arab Emirates, Qatar) on 3 and 4 December.
Macron will thus become the most important Western leader to reconnect with the crown prince after a three-year “purgatory”. Of course, Bin Salman, known as MBS, was received in Beijing by Xi Jinping and last year met in secret Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister at the time. But Joe Biden still refuses to talk to him on the phone.
Macron will be the first head of state in the West to break the handshake taboo with a leader who bears heavy responsibility for one of the cruellest (and best-documented) murders of recent times.
In the end, the dam didn’t hold up. Everyone was waiting to see what Biden would do with the prince after he settled in the White House. In February, Washington made public the secret service conclusions on the Khashoggi case, kept secret by Donald Trump. The document directly assigns responsibility for the murder of the journalist, a refugee to the United States and a collaborator of the Washington Post, to the prince.
After this spectacular gesture, however, the US administration punished only subordinate figures, warning Riyadh that any actions against dissidents abroad “will not be tolerated”. In other words: don’t try again. Meanwhile, despite Biden not speaking directly to MBS, his security advisor Jake Sullivan met him. Business as usual, in conclusion.
France, therefore, limits itself to going a little further in the process of reintegrating MBS into the political circuit. There realpolitik won, together with the strategic and economic logic.
What lessons can we draw from this story? The first is that impunity has triumphed. Today there is no international consensus around the idea of justice, nor instances capable of embodying it. The United Nations or the International Criminal Court no longer have this role.
The second lesson is a bitter question: if an ally of the United States and France can assassinate an exiled dissident without paying any price, what weight do criticism of Putin or other autocrats have? We cannot use different criteria for friends and rivals.
The third lesson is also related to the balance of power in today’s world: regional powers such as Saudi Arabia are no longer as dependent on US protection as they were in the past. The regional dynamic prevails, and the fate of a journalist is not really that important.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)