Analysis & Opinions

Arab Accountability Begins Here: Riyadh and Cairo in the Dock Over Khashoggi and Morsi

| June 19, 2019

The entire Arab region should pay attention to this week's calls by two respected United Nations agencies for international investigations into the deaths of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and ousted former Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi.

The probes would investigate criminal activity by officials or institutions of the governments of the two countries.

Never before have we witnessed such high-level, public calls by leading international agencies to investigate what is alleged to be premeditated criminal activity by Arab states and officials.

Whatever comes of these calls, which echo those of groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, we must hope they trigger the start of a historic process that begins to hold Arab governments accountable for their actions.

The symbolism of Egypt and Saudi Arabia being the targets of these calls for investigations is especially noteworthy.

This is because Riyadh and Cairo set the tone for the behaviour of many Arab monarchies and republics, and they are now in the dock together, effectively accused of premeditated murder and cover-ups, under the glare of the international community.

This week's events started with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights' (UNHCHR) call Tuesday for an independent international investigation into the conditions of imprisonment that led to the death of Egypt's former President Mohammad Morsi.

This was followed Wednesday, by United Nations special investigator Agnes Callamard's call for an international criminal investigation of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman for the premeditated killing of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Callamard's 101-page report says there is "credible evidence, warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials' individual liability, including the Crown Prince's."

In Egypt, former president turned prisoner, Mohamed Morsi, collapsed at a court hearing, bringing fresh attention to Egyptian jail conditions in general, and more particularly the appalling treatment of Morsi while in detention.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman, Rupert Colville Tuesday called for an investigation to determine if Morsi's death after nearly six years in jail, was a result of the harsh conditions he endured.

"Any sudden death in custody must be followed by a prompt, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation carried out by an independent body to clarify the cause of death," he said.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented the inhumane conditions across the Egyptian carceral system. They, too, have added their voice to the calls for a credible investigation into whether Morsi's death was caused by the conditions of his detention.

The accusation against the Saudi government is even more precise, calling Khashoggi's death, "an extrajudicial killing for which the state of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible."

The UN report, on the basis of evidence it collected, concluded that the October 2018 killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was premeditated and planned. This included recorded audio from inside the consulate immediately before Khashoggi entered.

One excerpt has Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a close aide to the crown prince, asking whether it will "be possible to put the trunk in a bag?"

A leading Saudi forensics doctor, Salah Mohammed Abdah Tubaigy, replies, "No. Too heavy," then says he hopes that the killing would "be easy". "Joints will be separated. It is not a problem. The body is heavy. First time I cut on the ground. If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them," Tubaigy said, adding: "Leather bags".

The shocking nature of these revelations is overshadowed by the reality that Arab institutions have proven themselves helpless to hold power accountable. Calls for international intervention to prevent or punish Arab state brutality have always been dismissed by Arab governments.

The perpetrators usually have gotten away with their deeds, whether in waging war against their own people or neighbouring states. A rare exception has been the mixed Lebanese-International Special Tribunal to hold accountable the killers of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri; its investigations ended by indicting four individuals, none of whom have been caught.

This unprecedented moment of international calls into investigations of the deeds of two leading Arab states may be a delayed reaction to a troubling trend: Some Arab Gulf monarchies are using the same heavy-handed authoritarian and violent policies that used to be pursued only by dictators of Arab republics, such as those of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and other army officers who seized power in their countries and ruled brutally for decades.

The convergence of state brutality, political intolerance, and military adventurism among major Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan has been one of the greatest recent threats to the wellbeing, dignity, and democratic aspirations of hundreds of millions of Arabs. The ongoing demonstrations in Algeria and Sudan bear witness to this.


The political gravity and moral clarity of the calls for international investigations of the Saudi and Egyptian governments could trigger other actions by countries and organizations that have been appalled by the policies of both governments, whether at home or in waging war in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere.

Several European states have already suspended some arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia, and the United States Senate voted to withhold military assistance to Saudi Arabia because of its war in Yemen, though President Donald Trump is ignoring that vote and pursuing close ties with Riyadh.

The UN report on the Khashoggi killing suggests, among other things, that member states impose targeted sanctions against those allegedly involved in the killing, including the Saudi crown prince, "focusing on his personal assets abroad, until and unless evidence has been produced that he bears no responsibility for the execution of Mr Khashoggi."

Such demands are likely to rattle many officials and private sector leaders inside Saudi Arabia, who must now assess whether calls for official state sanctions by a UN official enquiry outweigh the desire of many around the world to continue profitable business as usual with Saudi parties.

A potentially historic new dynamic may be getting underway in the Arab region, whereby state impunity is more seriously challenged by leading international actors who are assisted by Arab activists.     

Rami G. Khouri is a journalism professor and public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and an internationally syndicated columnist.

Original publication can be accessed on The New Arab's site.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Khouri, Rami.“Arab Accountability Begins Here: Riyadh and Cairo in the Dock Over Khashoggi and Morsi.” , June 19, 2019.