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Khashoggi’s death: a landmark for global sustainability?

24 Oct 2018 - 10:39

The most important event for global sustainability in the last weeks was not the publication of a new IPCC report on climate change, but the disappearance and suspected brutal murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

On 8 October the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report on pathways to keep global climate change within 1.5 degrees Celsius. It shows that current efforts of countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are insufficient, as they would lead us to 3 degrees climate change at the end of the century. It also outlines ways to keep climate change within 1.5 degrees, which is generally considered as a relatively safe margin to prevent the most catastrophic climate change events in the future.

The report prepares for the upcoming UNFCCC conference in Katowice, Poland, where countries discuss the next steps in preventing climate change as a follow-up of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Thereby it gives a sound summary of state-of-the-art evidence on climate change and on ways to prevent it. The question however is what political signal the report provides. Yet another warning that apocalypse is awaiting us if we do not enough to prevent climate change? And one even more urgent signal that we have to step up our efforts? For those that only in the slightest way follow the news on climate change this message will not be new and surprising. Despite the fact that good overviews of sound climate science are needed every once in a while, the repetitive and increasingly dramatic appeals for action by climate scientists and others over the last years run the risk to contribute to public resignation. Rather, we already know that we need to act but apparently something prevents us from doing so.

It is exactly this ‘something’ that is also found behind the suspected murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the consulate in Istanbul at the beginning of October. It seems that because Khashoggi dared to be critical about human rights in his home country, it was decided by the regime that he had to be eliminated. Evidence so far suggests that he has been murdered and his body was removed by a death squad flown in from Saudi Arabia. It is still unclear if the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman has given orders for this assault, but a connection seems very plausible.

However, Saudi Arabia is also the country with the largest oil reserves worldwide. It plays a key role in OPEC and global oil markets, with still large crude oil exports to the United States, Asia and to the European Union. It is also a key player in the Middle East currently involved in a war in Yemen, and a main buyer of arms, with imports amounting to $3 billion in 2016, of which 98% from the US and Europe.  Bin Salman also previously seemed the ‘liberal face’ of Saudi Arabia, with major plans to restructure the Saudi economy in a ‘Vision 2030’. And it was Bin Salman that invited investors for a large summit in Riyadh at the end of October 2018, in which attractive deals in one of the richest countries of the world were to be expected.

Finally, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia here seems to get prevalence above the current unhealthy arms- and oil-based economic relations with the country

No wonder therefore that the reactions to the event in other nations were initially lukewarm. While time had to be given for the establishment of evidence, also the fear of angering a ‘good friend’ might have played a role here. As often, US president Trump was most outspoken in his reaction. Referring to a big arms deal with Saudi Arabia last year he said that ‘It would not be acceptable to stop $110 billion from being spent in this country’ as a reaction to the suggested link of Khashoggi’s disappearance to the Saudi regime.

It is a good sign however, that at second thought investors now have started to react. Blackrock, Credit Suisse, JP Morgan, Ford, Google, MasterCard, HSBC and London Stock Exchange are some of the big names that have cancelled their participation in the investors conference. Also, the US Treasury Secretary has now announced to stay at home, as has the Dutch finance minister, IMF and many officials from other countries. Here, finally, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia seems to get prevalence above the current unhealthy arms- and oil-based economic relations with the country.

Admittedly, cancelling participation in one single conference is only a weak signal. It therefore remains to be seen what these reactions of business and nations mean on the longer term. However, Saudi Arabia remains a key country in the Middle East, of which the political and economic situation are showcases with not only a regional, but also a global importance. If the disappearance of Khashoggi therefore would have been a wake-up call to the world to start a new relationship with the country that is based on respect for human rights and on promoting economic reform away from arms and fossils, then his death has been a far bigger step towards global sustainability than any new IPCC report could have been.

Authors

Stephan Slingerland
Independent Advisor at Slingerland Policy Advice and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Clingendael Institute