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Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance has accomplished what 50,000 Yemeni deaths could not

Recent condemnations of the Saudi government are welcome, but the kingdom's brutality in Yemen has not drawn nearly as much attention.
Image: Man carries an injured girl rescued from the site of a Saudi-led air strike in Sanaa
A man rescues an injured girl after Saudi-led coalition fighter jets rained bombs in Sanaa, Yemen on Aug. 25, 2017. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Earlier this month, prominent Saudi Arabian dissident Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey and disappeared. What should have been a mundane procedure involving paperwork to finalize his divorce has turned into an ongoing international incident that has left his Turkish fiancée and the global community wondering what happened to the self-exiled Saudi government critic and Washington Post contributor.

Now it seems that Saudi officials may soon release a new statement claiming rogue Saudi operatives killed Khashoggi during an interrogation or rendition attempt that went awry. But no matter what the official Saudi explanation ends up being, reports by Turkish authorities paint a horrifying picture of what they allege happened: following a direct order by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, more than a dozen Saudi officials arrived in Istanbul on two separate flights on October 2, then proceeded to torture, kill and dismember Khashoggi’s body before returning to Riyadh and Dubai later that day.

The allegations of state-sponsored torture and assassination triggered a rare backlash from U.S. businesses, media and importantly, some U.S. government officials — although President Donald Trump has stopped short of a full-throated denunciation, caveating his statements repeatedly with the prince’s official denials. On Monday, Trump went so far as to muse that Khashoggi could have been murdered by “rogue killers.”

Amidst the backlash, an upcoming investors’ conference dubbed “Davos in the Desert” has experienced a mass exodus as U.S. media corporations like The New York Times, businesses like Uber and lobbying firms like the Harbour Group have all dropped out. In Washington, 22 Democratic and Republican senators signed a letter calling on Trump to investigate the allegations of extrajudicial killing under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. The act requires sanctions be imposed against Saudi Arabia if it is determined that the kingdom is responsible for Khashoggi’s murder.

Though long overdue, these condemnations of the Saudi government are welcome. Saudi Arabia has been a close U.S. ally for decades, but during that it has engaged in numerous violations of human rights including creating what is currently the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. For over three-and-a-half years, Saudi Arabia has been waging a brutal attack on its poorest neighbor, Yemen, causing the killings of as many as 50,000 people and the silent deaths of an estimated 113,000 children who have perished from malnutrition and preventable diseases like cholera. By using starvation as a weapon and causing the collapse of the Yemeni economy, health care and educational systems, Mohammed bin Salman has proven himself to be a ruthless monarch, and not the progressive reformer that many in the Western press have, until very recently, been happy to paint him as.

The crown prince’s actions in Yemen have not drawn nearly as much attention from his U.S. allies. Quite the opposite in fact.

The crown prince’s actions in Yemen have not drawn nearly as much attention from his U.S. allies. Quite the opposite in fact. The administrations of President Barack Obama and Trump have both been quick to support bin Salman’s military via billions of dollars in weapon sales, logistical support and training reportedly totaling around $120 million per month and facilitating midair refueling for Saudi jets in Yemeni skies. And until the brutal killing of 40 Yemeni children on a school bus, the U.S. mainstream media remained largely uncritical of its government's role in the war on Yemen.

Thus far, Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia seems to be enduring this rare moment of public outcry. Asked whether the U.S. would consider halting arms sales to Saudi if they are found responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance, Trump gave a transparent — if unsettling — response. He declared he, “would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion” and dismissed Khashoggi as “not a United States citizen.” (The missing journalist is a permanent U.S. resident.) And despite warning that Saudi should expect “severe punishment” if they are found responsible, Trump reiterated in a 60 Minutes interview that halting weapon sales is out of the question.

In stark contrast, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., took a much harder line, declaring: “There’s not enough money in the world to buy back our credibility on human rights if we do not move forward and take swift action.” And yet, Rubio’s concern for human rights was absent when, earlier this year, he joined 54 mostly Republican colleagues in killing a bill that called for an end to the U.S. role in Yemen altogether. This concern was also absent when Rubio and colleagues such as Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., backed the continued sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia last year, only to now emerge as leading voices against Saudi Arabia’s role in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

It is understandable that many within the U.S. government want to remain uncritical of Saudi’s actions in Yemen; after all, they were (and remain) partners in alleged war crimes and so condemnations of Saudi’s brutality in Yemen cannot ignore America’s helping hand in these atrocities.

Still, the hypocritical nature of the recent mainstream change of heart is especially painful for those who have tried for years to bring attention to the suffering of Yemeni men, women and children. How many deaths will it take before investing in Saudi Arabia becomes a problem? Or do human rights only matter when a prominent figure is the subject of such brutality?

Regardless of the reason, it remains to be seen whether this latest tragedy will be the catalyst that finally leads the United States to publicly distance itself from Saudi Arabia. For now, what’s certain is that Khashoggi’s disappearance, unlike the devastating war on Yemen, has led to a rare examination of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. At best, an investigation confirming Saudi Arabia’s role in the Khashoggi mystery will lead Washington to end its military support of Saudi Arabia — including the cancelation of arms sales and an end to the extensive U.S.-Saudi military cooperation in Yemen. At worst, and harsh condemnations aside, no sanctions will be imposed, there will be no end to U.S. investments in Saudi Arabia and no halt in the military cooperation between the two countries.

Whatever the outcome, Khashoggi's disappearance pulls the curtain back on the callousness, arrogance and perceived invincibility of Mohammed bin Salman — while also revealing how selective Washington’s outrage really is.

To learn more about Shireen Al-Adeimi's efforts to document and educate the public about the ongoing war in Yemen, listen to her recent conversation with Chris Hayes on this episode of "Why Is This Happening?"