DURING A CRACKDOWN on political dissent last year, the Saudi Arabian government arrested dozens of peaceful individuals. Those seized in just a single week's raids, The New York Times reported, included "clerics, academics, a poet, an economist, a journalist, the head of a youth organization, at least two women, and ... a son of a former king." None of the detainees was known to advocate extremist or criminal acts; their offense was that they failed to publicly applaud Riyadh's diplomatic and economic campaign against neighboring Qatar.
That wave of arrests 13 months ago prompted Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi editor living in quiet self-exile, to break his silence. He wrote a column for The Washington Post decrying the "climate of fear and intimidation" in his homeland. He struggled to understand how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely hailed as a reformer, could preside over such repression.
"I am raising my voice," he wrote, because "to do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot."
In subsequent columns, Khashoggi kept raising his voice about the Saudi government's human rights abuses and strangling of dissent. A few other journalists and activists kept raising their voices too. But only a few. Much more prevalent were the upbeat accounts of how the crown prince was such an impressive force for reform, moderation, and women's emancipation. The prevailing attitude was captured in the headline of one effusive column by Thomas Friedman: "Saudi Arabia's Arab Spring, At Last."
As the whole world knows, Khashoggi has now been silenced. If reports are accurate, he was tortured, murdered, and dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month; the gruesome crime, it appears, was committed by a Saudi death squad that included several men with direct ties to the crown prince.
And so once again the West is being taught a lesson it never seems to master for long: Enlightened despots aren't enlightened. Any regime that imprisons, tortures, or kills people because of their opinions is by definition an enemy of the free world — our enemy. Tyrants may embrace capitalism or talk up political reforms. They may legitimately win an election or crack down on corruption. They may quote Thomas Jefferson or sign arms-reductions treaties. They may even make the trains run on time.
But if they jail or murder dissidents, they are not our friends. . .