Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and moderately outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, became an unlikely household name for most of us this month.
After choosing self-imposed exile – apparently for security reasons last year – he became a U.S. resident and a regular columnist in The Washington Post, expressing his dismay at the “reforms” carried out recently by bin Salman in the Kingdom.
Khashoggi described these alleged reforms as a cover-up for a vast purge of potential rivals and dissidents at the hand of the prince.
Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, was himself detained as bin Salman’s “guest” for two weeks last November, where he announced his resignation – no doubt by force – from his PM position.
Looking back to those events a year later, it is clear that things could have turned far worse without the intervention of Lebanon’s international allies and a personal trip to Saudi Arabia by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Mohammed bin Salman has steadily grown in boldness as his reputation as the international community’s new darling and Saudi “reformer” grew over the past several months.
It may be worthy of note that Khashoggi was not always the enfant-de-choeur that the media is depicting him to be either.
In the 1980s, he made his name as a key journalist covering the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, following closely the rise of Osama bin Laden and interviewing him several times during the 1980s and 1990s.
During the Arab Uprisings from 2011, he expressed open support for the rising power of Islamist groups who had toppled the dictators of several Arab countries.
But that sort of media duplicity is beside the point now. The media are not the only voices that have been painting Khashoggi as a “freedom fighter” this month.
Leaders of major nations have condemned the Saudi killing and expressed serious doubt about the official version of the royal court that it was the result of an interrogation gone terribly wrong and carried out by rogue elements of their security services.
That 15 Saudi nationals, mostly security agents, entered the country on two private jets and headed to their embassy on the morning of that gruesome day – and that one of them, a forensic pathologist, was carrying a bone saw in his suitcase that morning – does not help the official narrative.
Yet, while the condemnations are unanimous, the long-term consequences are not clear.
And though some are wondering whether this marks “the end of Mohammed bin Salman’s honeymoon” with the West, President Trump is agonizing over the consequent loss of more than $110 billion in arms contracts recently signed with the Kingdom.
He is supported by evangelical leader Pat Robertson, who remarked sorrowfully that “you don’t blow up an international alliance over one person; I mean I’m sorry…”
There is indeed much at stake economically for countries with vested interests in Saudi Arabia who intend to suspend or cut ties with the Kingdom over the affair. With its massive reserves of oil, Saudi Arabia has tremendous control over global oil market prices.
Countries from China to Sweden have military contracts with the Kingdom, which imports large quantities of goods from China, the U.S. and several European nations.
Not least, the Crown Prince has positioned himself as a major ally of the West in its fight against global terrorism, as well as against Iran and potentially as a powerful regional ally for Israel.
Much is at stake indeed; but so is the soul of Western countries, and apparently of some Christian leaders. What is being tested is not the measure of goodness or extent of evil of a prince, of a journalist, of a president or of an evangelical leader.
What is being tested here is yet again our morality and the extent to which we are willing to bend our ethics for utilitarian purposes. Do we make a pact with the devil if the money is good enough?
Jesus’ affirmation resonates boldly here. “You cannot serve both God and mammon. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or else you will be loyal to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24).
Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.