The bizarre mystery surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance is part of a broader trend since the appointment, in June of last year, of the young Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who is more commonly known by his initials, M.B.S. The thirty-three-year-old has pledged sweeping reforms, but his rule has been increasingly ruthless, with mass arrests of businessmen, and even other princes, and death sentences meted out, this year, to a women’s-rights activist and also to moderate clerics who have preached against extremism. “Above and beyond the persecution of activists, writers, clerics, scholars, and businessmen inside Saudi, where the Saudis could claim some kind of ‘process,’ the apparent kidnapping of Khashoggi is now a pattern of attacks where the Saudis don’t even make a pretense of legality,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, told me on Sunday.
The growing campaign of intimidation, she noted, includes the arrest, in May, of Loujain al-Hathloul, a women’s-rights activist who once ranked third among the Arab world’s hundred most powerful women—even as the kingdom said that it was opening up opportunities for women by allowing them to drive, an issue that Hathloul had championed. Another is what Whitson called the “goonish assault” on Ghanem al-Dosari, who is famed for his satirical YouTube videos criticizing the Saudi royal family, by Saudi agents in London. Three Saudi princes have been abducted since King Salman, M.B.S.’s father, became king, in 2015, the BBC reported. Taken together, Whitson said, all of these acts “reflect the brazen, crude, Qaddafi-like nature of the Saudi crown prince, and, above all, his message to Saudis inside and outside the country: you better shut up. You are not safe. There is no law that can protect you.”