By Hassan Aourid
Until last Saturday, I was hopeful that the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul was not more than a case of censure that might result in his transfer home to face trial or might silence him. But revelations on Saturday night and Sunday indicated an abrupt and dramatic change that might amount to an assassination. This would turn his disappearance into a rerun of the disappearance and murder of left-wing Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965, coincidentally in the same month as the disappearnace of Khashoggi. Ben Barka’s assassination brought the Moroccan establishment to its knees, tainting its image. It also forced the opposition to radicalise, and threatened reconciliation efforts. Similarly, the Khashoggi case could transform into a burden too weighty for Saudi Arabia to bear.
Nothing is certain, but should Khashoggi’s assassination be confirmed, Saudi Arabia and the entire Middle East region will have taken a dangerous turn. Such a development will also have implications for Saudi Arabia’s future and its relations with Turkey, scuppering the idea of a ‘Sunni NATO’ and adversely affecting Saudi relations with the West – including the USA, particularly following President Trump’s recent pronouncements on bilateral relations. The West cannot remain silent and prioritise its interests over its values if Khashoggi is found to have been murdered.
I made Khashoggi’s acquaintance in May at a conference on security and political arrangements for the Middle East and North Africa convened by the Afro-Middle East Centre and Al Sharq Forum in Istanbul. The gathering gathered a galaxy of intellectuals and pundits from the Arab and Islamic world alongside international observers from the rest of the globe. Khashoggi was among the participants and was a keynote speaker at the closing session.
Speaking polished English in a calm tone, he provided a sensible assessment of the situation across the Arab world, from countries that embraced change and defended it inside and outside the Arab world to those that are openly inimical to change or ask to be left alone after facing adversity and seeing their nations torn apart. The kernel of his presentation was his defence of the strategic interests of Saudi Arabia and what he regarded as the risks that Iran’s nuclear programme and expansionist designs pose to the region.
It was no secret that Khashoggi was opposed to Saudi Arabia’s new policies, or, rather, new developments in his country led him to keep his distance from decision makers after having been an astute defender of his country, and it policies and institutions.
The new policies and new methods for conducting public affairs in Saudi Arabia have forced him into self-exile and a liberal opposition to the situation in his country. He was not loathe to air his views, whether on television channels, forums or meetings, or in the columns of The Washington Post, which were characterised by depth and audacity. I was a regular reader of his articles to understand what was happening in the Saudi kingdom.
Two months ago, I read one of his Washington Post articles where he referred to David Kirkpatrick’s book on the critical situation in the Arab world. I subsequently bought and reviewed the book.
Khashoggi wanted to prevent liberal and reformist movements from being left to the mercy of authoritarian regimes by encouraging them to align with with the dynamics of their societies. To put it differently, he wanted to have them recognise Islamic views regardless of differences since they were a reflection of a societal reality and an internal dynamic. Turning them into an enemy might hamper their evolution and drive them into withdrawal and, eventually, extremism. It was a principled position, which he articulated without neglecting the core principles underpinning modernist thought, including the emancipation of women, the introduction of legal standards for political action, balance among branches of government, and democratisation. This vision is bothersome for regimes that unilaterally decide the fate of adversaries and dissidents by pitting one movement against the other. It is also troublesome for regimes focused on dealing with the present to the detriment of the strategic, regimes that refuse to abide by standards, or account for their actions.
Particularly striking and central, to Khashoggi’s credit, was his defence of his country’s strategic interests, a reflection of his maturity and credibility. Some dissidents are driven by their impetuosity to confuse views, persons and regimes with the strategic interests of their countries, losing their credibility in the process. They might find themselves in an ephemeral media bubble and descend into oblivion as soon as it bursts. Khashoggi did not fall in this category, and he thus kept his credibility intact. He stands for something new that observers of Saudi Arabia’s affairs tend to overlook: liberal views which want to be immersed in global trends and universal experience. He was not the first to voice or embrace these tendencies, but he became one of its voices and mouthpieces. His mysterious disappearance signals a dramatic shift; the confirmation of his murder will worsen matters. Yet his forced disappearance will not kill his ideas. When an individual is silenced, the ideas he embraced or was made to embrace by the social dynamics in his country or region will not wither and die. On the contrary, they become more dangerous when they haunt people who were made victims, martyrs and ultimately icons. Khashoggi is now an idea that poses a greater danger to the current establishment in Saudi Arabia.
The tragic disappearance of a person whose sole weapon was his pen brings to mind an incident that changed the course of the Middle East when the henchmen of the Ottoman caliph, then the embodiment of Islamic unity, executed Arab nationalists in May 1916 in Damascus. When Emir Faisal bin Hussein, a leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans and later king of the Arab Kingdom of Syria, heard the news, he sprang to his feet in a fit of rage, removed his headdress, and shouted a line that has become famous and marked a break with a system that was hitherto seen as the custodian of Islam: “Death has never been so appealing, oh Arabs!” The rest of the story is history. The smallest spark can ignite the largest fire.
The gruesome murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was designed to be a clear and firm message for Saudi dissidents, and reflected the current Saudi sense of impunity. Saudi Arabia, and particularly its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), however, seemed to have miscalculated the consequences of the murder. The incident caused immediate international ructions, and increased pressure on Saudi Arabia. It is still unclear, however, whether there will be long-term consequences or whether Saudi Arabia will succeed in covering up the murder.
Khashoggi’s murder indicates MBS’s paranoia and intolerance for criticism. Khashoggi, after all, was a supporter of the country’s monarchy and an establishment figure – even if he was somewhat critical of MBS. He had been an adviser to another Saudi prince, Turki bin Faisal, former head of the Saudi intelligence service; had worked in Saudi Arabia’s London and Washington embassies; and had initially supported MBS’s ‘reform’ initiative. He was, thus, an insider who had turned his back on MBS, making him, arguably, more dangerous than a dissident. Further, even in the authoritarian monarchy that Saudi Arabia is, the man western media and politicians liked to tout as a great ‘reformer’ has deepened the levels of repression, even arresting dozens of members of the royal family in November 2017, and detaining influential religious scholars such as Salman al-Awda and human and women’s rights activists. These efforts have helped concentrate power in the crown prince’s office, as well as expanded his and the state’s coffers through large amounts of extortion money.
Khashoggi’s murder was undertaken with the brazenness with which MBS has defined himself, taking place in a consulate, with a large kill team flown in using their own passports, ignoring a Turkish camera monitoring the entrance to the consulate. This allowed Turkey to easily gain intelligence about the murder, including video and audio recordings. The attitude also reflects the sense of impunity that MBS has developed, an attitude that is justified when one considers his actions over the past three years – since being appointed deputy prime minister and minister of defence - that he has not had to account for. These include the brutal war against Yemen and the massacre of civilians – including schoolchildren; the blockade on Qatar; the kidnapping of a Lebanese prime minister, Saad al-Hariri – and forcing him to resign; last year’s detention of members of the royal family and the extortion of substantial parts of their wealth; the weakening of the Gulf Cooperation Council; and his insulting of Palestinians and warming relations with Israel. He therefore had every reason to believe that he would escape accountability for Khashoggi’s murder as well.
Saudi Arabia had initially denied that Khashoggi has been killed, claiming he had exited the consulate. However, about ten days later, as Turkish sources leaked ever more information and because international attention and condemnation increased, the Saudis suggested that the murder was carried out by ‘rogue killers’, in an attempt to insulate MBS. They also finally acquiesced to Turkey’s request to search the consulate and the house of the consul-general. It is highly unlikely that MBS knew nothing about the murder, especially since seven of the fifteen-person hit squad are from his personal security detail. The Saudi suggestion that it was a botched interrogation is also difficult to sustain considering that autopsy and forensic specialist Salah Abdulaziz Al-Tubaigy was part of the Saudi team that arrived at the consulate and that he, it is reported, brought a bone saw with.
Khashoggi’s killing will have immediate short-term consequences for the Kingdom. It has already attracted hostility from the US senate, which in 2017 narrowly failed to halt Saudi arms sales for weapons destined to be used in Yemen. The most vocal critic is right-wing senator Lindsey Graham, a former defender of the Saudis, who said, ‘MBS is toxic. We should sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia’. Already, twenty-one of the twenty-two-member senate foreign relations committee called for the implementation of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Act. The administration now has four months to investigate human rights abuses relating to Khashoggi’s murder; if confirmed, the act stipulates the imposition of asset freezes and travel bans on the culprits. However, the US president, Donald Trump, has dithered between condemning the murder, defending the Saudis, insisting that arms sales to Saudi Arabia were too important to the USA to be jeopardised, and promising ‘severe punishment’. Yet, his is clearly reluctant to take any action against Saudi Arabia, only partly because of arms sales. Other factors include his own business interests with the Saudis, his obsession with Iran and the Saudi support for his anti-Iran initiative, and because MBS is a firm ally in supporting Israel. Further, it is unclear whether the US senate’s righteous indignation will continue or dissipate with midterm elections coming up and Republicans not wanting to seem divided.
The British, French and German governments issued a joint statement condemning Khashoggi’s murder and advocating an independent credible investigation; the G7 issued a similar statement. But there is no indication that this will result in any concrete action against Saudi Arabia, even if the previous image of MBS they touted – as a moderniser – becomes tarnished.
More Immediately, there has been a significant withdrawal from the Saudi ‘Future Investment Initiative’, MBS’s project to attract funds to Saudi Arabia for his economic ‘modernisation’ and liberalisation project, scheduled for later this month. Cancellations and/or high-level pullouts have come from companies such as Ford, JP Morgan Chase, Virgin Group, Blackstone and Standard Chartered; media organisations such as Fox, CNN, Bloomberg, Financial Times, and the New York Times; and senior political and economic figures such as the US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, the finance ministers of France and Netherlands, the trade secretary of the UK, and IMF head Christine Lagarde. Uber, which Saudi Arabia has shares in, and Fox Business Network, which was a cosponsor of the event, have also withdrawn –Fox Business also withdrew its sponsorship. These withdrawals are sufficient to threaten a collapse of the summit, disrupting MBS’s project in, at least, the short term.
Within the MENA region Saudi Arabia has received support from allies Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, as well as from Kuwait and the Palestinian Authority, all of which have called for an investigation, but expressed their support for the kingdom. Most of these countries are dependent on Saudi largesse, while the UAE and KSA have a strong economic and military partnership and alliance against Qatar and Iran.
A significant development in the region might be Saudi relations with Turkey, which have been cool, mainly as a result of Turkey’s support of Qatar. The manner in which Turkish intelligence services and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have responded, suggest that they have calculated on pushing Saudi Arabia into a corner, as they have done, but may hope that this will force Saudi Arabia to improve relations with Turkey, on terms dictated by the latter. The current situation represents a public relations coup for Turkey and a disaster for Saudi Arabia. However the Saudis respond, Turkey will emerge in the stronger position. The Turks have also used the incident to strengthen relations with the USA, which were also strained in the recent past, releasing American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who has been in Turkish custody since 2016. Turkey will likely demand that some high-level Saudi official take the fall. They might not aim as high as MBS, however.
Within Saudi Arabia, the murder has had limited impact, and while there is concern about the possible consequences of external pressure on MBS’s standing, there is no indication yet that he will be removed from his position or disciplined in any way. This will be disappointing both for the Saudi opposition as well as dissident and disaffected members of the royal family who wait anxiously for an opportunity to hit back at the crown prince. At the moment, it seems that the worst consequence for MBS might be his father Salman instructing him to take a low profile in the immediate future while attempts are made to contain the fallout of the Khashoggi murder. MBS remains Salman’s favoured son and nominee as his successor.
It is quite likely that, in the long-term, the pressure on the kingdom will slowly dissipate as western geopolitical and economic needs come to the fore again. Many western companies will seek to benefit from the aggressive expansion of the Saudi 230-billion-dollar sovereign wealth fund (Public Investment Fund), which has recently purchased shares in renewable energy, property, and motion production companies around the world. MBS is already deploying Saudi finances to limit the fallout from the murder, releasing 100 million dollars in funding to the US State Department’s counterterrorism programme.
Trump has already said he will not suspend sales of arms to Saudi Arabia because, he claimed, Russian and Chinese companies would replace American ones. Whatever the USA decides, switching heavy weapons’ technology from American to any other is not an easy or short-term process and the Saudis and Americans will remain tied in their arms seller-buyer relationship in the medium term.
While the immediate global response to the Khashoggi murder has imposed substantial pressure on Saudi Arabia, it is unclear that this will have any impact on Saudi Arabia in terms of reducing its repressive actions internally and externally, ending its war in Yemen, or easing its aggressive policies in the region. It is therefore not certain that this will help create space for Saudi dissenters – even within the royal family – to voice their dissent, even if MBS and his security services become more careful about how they suppress opposition.