My own experience inside a Saudi diplomatic mission couldn’t have been more different than Jamal Khashoggi’s. For one thing, mine was years ago, while I was on a study tour in Washington, D.C., whereas Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month to pick up a form. Aside from that, I had a perfectly pleasant evening learning about Saudi culture, while Khashoggi was apparently tortured, murdered and dismembered.
My gracious Saudi hosts will have to excuse me if I don’t return. I mean, I enjoyed being dined, if not wined, and it was interesting to listen to what you might call Saudi hasbarah. But the risks of entering Saudi embassies turn out to be too great.
Under the Vienna Convention, an embassy is essentially an extraterritorial speck of land inside a state that belongs to another state. When I was in the Saudi Embassy in Washington, therefore, I was basically a Canadian inside a teeny bit of Saudi Arabia, surrounded by the United States. And, of course, I was a Jew, too.
But being a Canadian can sometimes be risky enough. Just this summer, Canada innocuously tweeted that the kingdom should do more to advance “civil society and women’s rights,” and the Saudis went ballistic. They unleashed sanctions ranging from selling Canadian assets to recalling thousands of Saudi students from Canadian schools.
This was mild compared to the case of William Sampson, a British-Canadian who was living a quiet expat life in Riyadh. Sampson was minding his own business when, in 2000, Saudi officials suddenly framed him for murder and terrorism.
After he was freed three years later, Sampson documented his experiences in his exceptional memoir, Confessions of an Innocent Man. That book describes not only Sampson’s repeated torture and rape by Saudi authorities, but also his own remarkable ability to maintain a semblance of dignity and independence in horrific circumstances.
I didn’t read Victor Frankl’s Holocaust masterpiece Man’s Search for Meaning until many years later, but when I did, I thought of Sampson. Both men found freedom of choice in horrendous situations and both maintained their sanity and their purpose as a result. Theirs were remarkable expressions of humanity, dignity and courage in the most trying conditions imaginable.
If Khashoggi relied on Frankl or Sampson while fighting for his life against the Saudi killing squad, we’ll never know. We do know, however, that Khashoggi died a martyr for liberty and that his death probably did more to highlight Saudi Arabia’s repulsive political culture than his prolific Washington Post columns.
All this must strike fear into the heart of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi refugee living in Montreal. Abdulaziz recently discovered that Saudi agents almost certainly monitor his cellphone – and he had been communicating frequently with Khashoggi.
The Saudis bungled the Khashoggi affair in multiple ways, but that bungling began with the initial decision to torture and murder a non-violent irritant. That the Saudis reached for their sword because Khashoggi reached for his pen says a great deal.
The Saudis could learn a thing or two about targeted assassinations from their neighbours, the Israelis. Israel is probably the world’s leading practitioner of targeted assassinations, but the Israelis have also had their share of cockups. As Ronen Bergman’s spectacular book, Rise and Kill First, shows, from killing innocent civilians to a veritable internal coup orchestrated by Mossad, Israel’s legendary assassins have plenty of skeletons in their closet, too. But unlike the Saudis, the Israelis are defending a vibrant, if imperfect, democracy that’s threatened by the very forces the Saudis champion.
The fact that the Saudis have so badly – and publicly – botched the Khashoggi matter will only make it harder for the Israelis to undertake the inherently deadly “spies and lies” work. But that is OK. The standards for green-lighting and executing targeted assassinations should always be super high. If only the Saudis had realized this before they cooked up their horrific plan to murder Khashoggi.