The shocking murder of Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Saudi operatives in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has become a grisly focal point for speculation about the future of the Arab world. Headlines affirm that what lies ahead in the Middle East hinges on whether those responsible for his death—presumably including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—are brought to justice.
That would be unfortunate, because Mohammed bin Salman will not be brought to justice. As was obvious from the start and has become clearer in recent weeks, the crown prince will face no personal accountability even if other officials are put forward for punishment. Khashoggi’s murder will likely stand as a monument to impunity.
While it is tempting to attribute such impunity to the idiosyncrasies of the Trump administration or to the vagaries of the politics of the Saudi royal family, in fact the triumph of impunity has been one of the central themes of the seven years since uprisings broke out in the Arab world. The counterrevolutionary forces across the region have strategically and determinedly pushed to restore the impunity of regime elites that had been directly targeted by the protests of 2011. This impunity is critical to their quixotic efforts to restore autocratic stability in an ever more turbulent and disordered Middle East.
The information revolution in Arab affairs during the last two decades—the explosive spread of satellite television, the internet, and social media—has transformed the environment in the region. It has radically increased transparency and denied even the most repressive governments the ability to control the flow of information.
Yet impunity holds that there should be no accountability, regardless of evidence or knowledge of wrongdoing. As regimes came to understand that they could not consistently or effectively prevent public knowledge of their actions, as they had for decades, they responded by doubling down on impunity, severing transparency from accountability. The demands for democratic reforms in the first decade of the century, and for the overthrow of regimes in 2011, sought in a fundamental way to demand accountability from leaders. Whether or not these regimes became real democracies, reforms should have increasingly constrained leaders from overly abusing their power and strengthened the force of the rule of law.
Arab regimes wanted nothing to do with such reforms. Since they could not overcome the rise of transparency, they focused instead on ensuring that it would not bring with it greater accountability. They did so through both old and new forms of repression and political manipulation. Most post-2011 Arab regimes have tightened control over civil society and independent media, through traditional methods such as extensive arrests or restrictive new laws. And they have moved heavily into the broadcast and social media spaces they could not close down, using armies of bots and trolls to pollute the information stream through disinformation, harassment, and sophisticated disruption campaigns. Throughout, they could count on their depredations not seriously jeopardizing the continued support of the United States and other Western states.
The first salvo in the campaign for the restoration of impunity came in Bahrain. The Gulf Cooperation Council’s intervention in the kingdom in 2011 and the subsequent sectarian repression led to the first successful effort at forcefully stifling an Arab uprising. Surprisingly, Bahrain’s monarchy agreed to the formation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, chaired by the late Cherif Bassiouni. Had the carefully researched findings and recommendations been accepted by King Hamad Al Khalifa and led to real accountability for those who perpetrated the crackdown, the region’s course may have been different.
But instead, the monarchy ignored the spirit and substance of the findings on torture and abuse. As early as mid-2011, it had already pointed the way toward the restoration of Arab norms of official impunity. The boycott of Manama by many policy analysts and artists in the wake of its crackdown barely lasted a year, and soon Bahrain had shed whatever pariah status it had gained.
Those norms of impunity would be embraced and acted upon by a majority of Arab regimes in the following years. Atrocities and abuses were carried out in public so that it would be clear that no consequences were feared, while arrests targeted many of the most visible and internationally-known activists and civil society figures.
For example, Egypt’s July 2013 military coup did not just sweep aside the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood president and government, it carried out a shocking massacre of possibly some 1,000 Islamist protestors in central Cairo in broad daylight. The Raba‘a al-‘Adawiyya slaughter established that the new military regime would practice no restraint—and that it would pay no domestic or international price for its atrocities. The escalating arrests across all areas of civil society and activism that followed, particularly the rejection of any scrutiny of the military, sought to entrench this impunity in the political culture. This reflected a wider pattern in the region. The sole exception, Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, carried on valiantly, but against ever stiffer political resistance.
The domestic and international failure in recent years to impose restraint or accountability for violence in the Middle East has been another key factor in the reimposition of the norm of impunity. In Syria’s conflict, neither the regime of Bashar al-Assad nor its external backers have faced significant prospects of being brought to justice for war crimes, despite their taking place in perhaps history’s most thoroughly documented civil war. Israel’s firing upon unarmed protestors along the Gaza border this year has carried no serious political costs, despite massive media attention. The coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has imposed almost unbelievable human suffering in Yemen through blockades and bombings, with little public attention or pressure until recently.
The drive to defend the principle of impunity helps to explain why the Saudis did not expect the Khashoggi murder to generate reputational costs and likely expected benefits from his disappearance. The murder was of a piece with years of repressive policies by Saudi Arabia and its allies, and was not necessarily meant to remain secret. Over the previous year, the Saudi regime had brazenly held hostage a Lebanese prime minister, detained hundreds of the country’s richest and most powerful figures, executed a leading Shi‘a cleric, and arrested many prominent human rights and women’s rights activists. Targeting Khashoggi would show that nobody was safe and that there would be no punishment for even the most outrageous actions.
The surprisingly sustained global outcry over Khashoggi’s killing reopened a regional and international debate about accountability. The cascade of withdrawals from the Saudi investment conference in October, condemnations by many Western governments, a barrage of critical media commentary, and demands for a serious investigation showed that there might perhaps be limits to impunity even for the Saudi crown prince. The Saudis have scrambled, shifting from denials to a succession of admissions of guilt, while trying to protect Mohammed bin Salman from direct accountability.
But while this public campaign mattered, its limits quickly became clear when the Trump administration signaled it would continue to support Mohammed bin Salman regardless of his responsibility for Khashoggi’s killing. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu similarly declared that Saudi support against Iran was too important to endanger because of a political assassination. Few consultancies and lobbyists publicly dropped their Saudi file. It seems likely that Mohammed bin Salman will now reward those who stuck with him and punish those who did not, reinforcing the principle of impunity.
Trump may not have caused Arab leaders to embrace impunity, because the rejection of accountability is at the heart of the contemporary Arab ruling formula. However, by modeling impunity as a normal aspect of his own presidency, Trump has aligned the United States with that Arab governance model and has helped to legitimize impunity. This may be a repugnant sort of soft power, at odds with long-professed American values, but it corresponds all too comfortably with the preferences of regional leaders.
Trump’s America stands for impunity for allied leaders and the downplaying of their abuses of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. It also stands for recklessly harsh moves against adversaries, regardless of the justification. All this is just what autocratic Arab regimes want in a U.S. president. But impunity, and the corruption and misrule that it enables, has real costs. It hollows out faith in political systems, widens gaps between rulers and ruled, and will likely accelerate trends leading toward the next regional crisis.