BY SHASHI MALLA
In this write-up, it will be attempted to re-produce the viewpoints of all the relevant players in the political psycho-drama with regional and international ramifications. The approach will be that of a multi-constellation analysis.
Jamal Khashoggi, the Person
The family was well established in Saudi Arabia. The grandfather was a royal physician and the father was an international arms-dealer. Jamal was intimate in royal circles and served in various capacities within the country and abroad. Slowly but certainly he became disillusioned with the direction the country was taking, especially after Prince Mohammad bin Salman became the heir apparent. It is possible that he became out of favour, especially after his well-wishers in the palace hierarchy themselves were shunted out of the complicated and opaque palace politics.
Jamal Khashoggi left his country (after divorcing his wife) and distanced himself from the regime. He settled down near Washington D.C. and became a contributing writer for the very influential “The Washington Post”. He was at most a mild critic of developments in the Saudi kingdom, but well-respected in intellectual circles for his well thought out views of Saudi Arabia in particular, and the region in general. He became engaged to a Turkish doctoral candidate and gained the status of a permanent resident in the US. He applied to the Royal Saudi Consulate General in Istanbul (not merely consulate as mentioned in the media) in person for divorce papers pertaining to his re-marriage. He was given an appointment date to collect the necessary papers. On that fateful day, he was dropped off by his fiancée who waited in the car nearby, but she waited in vain. However, when he did not appear even after many hours, she was perspicacious enough to alert the Turkish authorities.
On hindsight, it should have been apparent to Jamal Khashoggi – with all his national and international contacts – that in the meantime he had become persona non grata in the Saudi kingdom. After all, his sons were not allowed to leave and visit him in the U.S., and he was definitely aware of the ‘robust’ activities of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (also known by his initials ‘MBS’) back home. Unknown to him, his critical write-ups had grievously offended ‘the powers that be’ and made him guilty of lese majeste.
From the perspective of the inner circle of ‘MBS’, Jamal Khasjoggi’s critical stance back in the US (after all the kingdom’s main strategic ally) had long been a pain in the neck for quite some time (to put it mildly!). He was guilty of grievous treason and had to be punished appropriately. Thus a diabolical plan was hatched – with or without the blessing of MBS, that is the question!
After insisting for weeks that Khashoggi had left the consulate general soon after (without contacting his fiancée who was patiently waiting for him !), Saudi diplomats in Istanbul then lamely said that he had been killed in a fight within. This claim was rightly met with widespread skepticism. Finally, Saudi Arabia blamed the killing of the journalist in a “rogue operation”, giving a new twist of a gruesome act that sparked a global outcry. Now, the soft-spoken and suave Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir told the American Fox News “the murder” had been a “tremendous mistake” and categorically denied that the powerful crown prince had ordered the brutal liquidation.
It is crystal clear that the Saudis have offered conflicting accounts. Adel al-Jubeir insisted: “We are determined to find out all the facts and we are determined to punish those who are responsible for this murder.” These were brave words signifying nothing, since the Saudis had stretched the gullibility of the international community to such an extent that any sane person could ask: ‘How stupid do you think we are?’ The foreign minister also claimed that even the senior leadership of the Saudi intelligence service was not aware of this horrific operation – although 15 high-ranking Saudi officials travelled to Istanbul on two planes just before the butchery, and left just after the crime. Just a coincidence?
The foreign minister also added: “The individuals who did this did this outside the scope of their authority. There obviously was a tremendous mistake made, and what compounded the mistake was the attempt to try to cover up.” Everyone would agree to the last part of the statement, and US President Donald Trump said so as much. However, it is just not credible that such an atrocious act could be carried out on foreign soil without the green light from the highest authorities in Saudi Arabia. Also missing from the narrative is the role [or lack of thereof] of the Saudi Consul General, a high ranking diplomat, who has suddenly been recalled. According to a media outlet close to the Turkish government, the office of the crown prince received four phone calls from the consulate general after the cold-blooded assassination.
Then there is the question of the body. If the Saudi government accepts that a murder took place inside their consulate general, the official(s) [in Istanbul] should be aware of what happened to it. Neither the consulate general nor the Saudi government can claim to have no knowledge whatsoever.
The Turkish government has been skeptical from the start. An adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed the Saudi version of events: “The more one thinks about it, the more it feels like our intelligence is being mocked.” President Erdogan has promised that he would reveal the “naked truth” of the matter. At the same time he has remained respectful of Saudi King Salman. Initially President Erdogan had accused the government of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of planning the “savage murder” and mutilation of the dissident writer.
It is apparent that President Erdogan is carrying out an increasingly high-stakes diplomatic and media battle against the Saudi crown prince. According to “The New York Times” (NYT), he has “committed himself to exploiting the international uproar over the killing to inflict as much damage as possible on the public image of the crown prince, who had marketed himself to the West as a bold reformer and pivotal ally” [especially of the US].
It is intriguing that both [temporary] antagonists – Turkey (also a Sunni majority country) and Saudi Arabia — are close allies of the US, and both aspire to be the leader in the region. Saudi Arabia, of course, has deeper pockets, and Turkey is currently struggling with a very weak economy.Thus, the bilateral crisis could be diffused through the infusion of substantial Saudi investment.
United States Interests
President Trump initially threatened to inflict “severe punishment” on Saudi Arabia if it is found to have killed the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. However, these were mere words to placate his domestic audience and the critical international community. With time, the hue and cry will subside and Trump’s deep personal ties with the kingdom and America’s own national interests will assert themselves. It will be business as usual soon enough.
First, after all, Saudi Arabia has about 18 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and is the world’s biggest oil exporter according to the “Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries” (OPEC). This accords the country much economic power and influence in the international arena. The Saudi government could react to sanctions with reduction of oil production, leading to increase in oil prices (in the unlikely event that other exporters increase their own production).
Second, military contracts also play a major role between Saudi Arabia and Western countries. In 2017, it had the third-largest defence budget in the world, according to the “Stockholm International Peace Research Institute” (SIPRI). As a counter-measure to any sanctions, Riyadh could substitute Western military supplies with those from China and Russia.
Third, Saudi Arabia also plays a crucial role in maintaining security in the Middle East and thwarting terrorism. It is the birthplace of Islam and the king is the ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Places of Mecca and Medina’. Consequently, as the religious leader of the Sunni sect, it has much sway in the Islamic world. It could curtail vital security information to Western countries, including above all the US, if stringent measures were applied against it.
Fourth, the United States, especially under Trump, has a vital interest in curbing the influence of Iran in the near region, above all Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and preserving the national security of Israel. As the leading Sunni power [contested however by Turkey], Saudi Arabia is kingpin for the US in the proxy conflicts across the Middle East with the Shia Muslim power Iran. A geo-political shift in favour of Iran would be seen as highly detrimental to the US.
Fifth, a major deterioration of relations of America and the West with Saudi Arabia could also mean that their companies would no longer have access to the flourishing Saudi market. The US enjoys a trade surplus. In August this year, Canada had called for the release of detained civil society and women’s rights activists. The Saudi government promptly suspended all new trade for Canada’s interference in its domestic affairs and violation of Saudi sovereignty.
The UK, France and Germany expressed shock at the abomination meted out to Jamal Khashoggi and demanded a full explanation.UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt condemned the killing “in the strongest possible terms”. He acknowledged Britain’s close security links with Saudi Arabia but warned that London would “act accordingly” if “the appalling stories we are reading turn out to be true”. But the constraints applying to the US [see above] also apply to all the Western countries. It is significant that all the other major powers – China, Russia, Japan and India – have remained silent on this affair, as have all other important Muslim countries, like Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia.
Furthermore, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would not allow arms exports to Saudi Arabia to continue and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau threatened to cancel a multi-billion dollar defence contract. However, these are just drops in the ocean compared to US arms exports (over 60 percent) and those of the UK (over 20 percent). Other countries exporting arms to Saudi Arabia are: France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Turkey and Sweden.
The international media may have let off steam, but Turkey is still making noises. And expect more robust responses from Germany [Angela Merkel may want to leave a mark since this is her very last term as chancellor] and the United States Congress [especially if the Democrats win a majority next week].
The writer can be reached at: email@example.com