Which comes first, Mr President, money or murder?
Will SA join the global outcry against the killing of a Saudi journalist or accept investment from his killers?
What comes first, investment or human rights? How much investment into a country does it take to secure support or silence when the investor country commits terrible acts and violates human rights? When should we tell an investor to take their money and walk away because they torture and kill their own people?
This is a question SA may have to ask itself this week given recent events in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It’s a question that’s taking centre stage in the US.
On October 2 a Saudi journalist and columnist for the Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, entered his country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, at about 1.30pm. Khashoggi, a former Saudi insider who had become increasingly disillusioned with his country’s current government, went into the consulate to obtain paperwork that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.
She waited outside. He never came out.
Saudi Arabia has insisted that Khashoggi left but, in this world of CCTV cameras and other gadgets, it has provided no proof of any kind that he has.
Gruesome details of what happened have been leaked to Turkish and American newspapers by, largely, Turkish government sources. The Middle East Eye reported that Khashoggi was dragged out of the consul general’s office and then killed by men who later dismembered his body inside the consulate in Istanbul. Other media have reported that a death squad of 15 special agents had arrived in Turkey from Saudi Arabia via private jet especially to murder the columnist.
Khashoggi had been living in the US in self-imposed exile because he feared being arrested in his home country. Asked by the BBC just two days before his disappearance about the possibility of being arrested if he went back to Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi answered: “People who get arrested (in Saudi Arabia) are not even dissidents. They just have an independent mind.”
Now a global firestorm is developing around Khashoggi’s disappearance. Pressure is mounting on the Saudi strongman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for a while seen as a reformer but now regarded by many as an autocrat, to disclose what happened to Khashoggi.
In the US even members of President Donald Trump’s own party are voicing dissatisfaction over the administration’s response to the story. Trump, whose son-in-law is very close to MBS, as bin Salman is known, seems married to the idea that commerce trumps human rights.
Remember that Saudi Arabia has pledged $20bn in infrastructure investment in the US. Further, the US president is keen to sell an eye-watering $110bn in weapons to the Saudis. Last Thursday Trump told reporters in the Oval Office: “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country ... I don’t like stopping an investment of $110bn in the United States.”
Essentially, he was saying the Saudis may be guilty as hell of killing a journalist, but money comes first.
Trump walked back his remarks later in the week in a television interview, saying: “We’re going to get to the bottom of it, and there will be severe punishment.”
Then he couldn’t help himself, adding: “I’ll tell you what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that. And you know what, there are other ways of punishing.”
Trump is not the only world leader who is squirming. This whole thing poses a quandary for many other nations. In July SA’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that Saudi Arabia will invest at least $10bn in SA, mostly in the energy sector, including building oil refineries. That’s a big whack of cash and it added nicely to Ramaphosa’s drive to attract $100bn in investment to boost our failing economy.
The pledge to invest did not come from some lowly minion – it was made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself during Ramaphosa’s official visit to the oil-producing nation.
Many of Ramaphosa’s friends, like the billionaire Richard Branson, have already pulled out of Saudi Arabia, saying they don’t want to be associated with a regime that seems to murder dissidents. What will Ramaphosa and Lindiwe Sisulu do – will they raise their voices for human rights and press freedom?
What will SA do?