Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance puzzled and then horrified a world all too familiar with mindless brutality and the brazen impunity of governments. But ultimately it will probably make us more cynical than we already are about what drives international relations.
Of course, there is plenty of sadness. Who could not be moved by the lament of Khashoggi’s fiancee?
“Your beautiful laugh will remain in my soul forever.”
There is plenty of outrage too. Khashoggi’s editor at the Washington Post, Karen Attiah, promised that his “Saudi murderers have messed with the wrong paper.” A few US senators never sold on the Trump administration’s love affair with the young Saudi leadership warned of retribution.
Even a few governments took the high road. Canada, which stood up to Saudi Arabia over its handling of dissent (and suffered the consequences) dismissed the eventual Saudi version of events as lacking consistency and credibility. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the few leaders capable of combining decency and policy, says German arms sales to the Kingdom are off.
But none of the principal actors at the heart of this tragedy emerges with much credit.
The 33-year-old Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, untested by crisis and intolerant of criticism, watched impotently as a carefully (and expensively) nurtured image of a modernizing Kingdom was torn apart and the Royal Court lapsed into panic and disarray.
In the early days of the crisis he called Jared Kushner at the White House for support, two ingenues about to be swallowed by events.
Saudi media went into overdrive about Khashoggi’s connections with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Kingdom rallied its junior partners in the region to express blind solidarity. Egypt proclaimed that the Saudi report “demonstrates the Kingdom’s keenness to reach the truth of this incident.”
Saudi Arabia’s ‘cynical exercise’
When finally Saudi Arabia coughed up a confession, it was made to seem that a brawl had accidentally ended Khashoggi’s life after “discussions” had gone wrong. There was no apology, instead an appreciation of Khashoggi’s life in official media.
It was a cynical exercise – deputy heads would roll. Fall guys in the intelligence service were identified and 18 unnamed individuals detained. MBS, as the Crown Prince is widely known, was protected, his knowledge of such an operation unspoken, even though two of those dismissed were among his closest advisers. The Crown Prince was even given the job of cleaning up the intelligence services he already led.
Even now, after 17 days of denial, the Saudi explanation is like a shipwreck, riddled with holes and shifting with the tide.
The Trump administration, an enthusiastic backer of Saudi Arabia, was slow to respond as the crisis unfolded. While expressing concern, President Trump said Khashoggi was not a US citizen (though he was a resident alien, as were Trump’s in-laws until recently) and he wasn’t going to do anything to risk US military sales to Saudi Arabia. Along the way Trump progressively inflated the number of US jobs at risk, from 40,000 to one million.
As the crisis dragged on and Saudi culpability came into focus thanks to Turkey’s well-organized campaign of media leaks, Trump dispatched his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to urge the Saudis to come clean. The bonhomie of Pompeo’s photo-op with the Crown Prince belied the seriousness of the situation, though US officials insisted there had been some hard talk in private.
Behind the scenes, the White House fretted about oil. The imminence of US sanctions against Iran has already pushed up crude prices; Trump has already publicly appealed to King Salman to open up Saudi spigots. Now was not the time for a major rift with OPEC’s “swing producer.”
An opportunity for Erdogan to play ‘good cop’
For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, the crisis was an opportunity to play good cop (even though at least 70 journalists languish in Turkish jails and the independent media has been suffocated) while turning the screw on a hated regional rival.
There is no doubting Turkish anger. Some of Erdogan’s close circle were friends with Khashoggi and shared his vision of a “political Islam.” But while Erdogan was restrained in public, his intelligence agencies kept up a drip feed of leaks that tightened the noose on the Saudis – details of the planes that carried the Saudi hit team, surveillance footage and accounts of the infamous audio feed allegedly captured from inside the consulate.
Erdogan has promised to publish a full account of what happened on Tuesday – the day a major investors’ conference begins in Saudi Arabia. It is no coincidence.
That conference – dubbed “Davos in the Desert” and a showcase for MBS’ ambitious privatization plans – comes at an awkward moment for the big banks and investment funds. One by one, their CEOs made a show of pulling out as Khashoggi’s death went unexplained. But some of their junior directors will reportedly attend, given the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in fees and consultancy work. Major companies are fearful that a principled stand now will long be remembered by the Saudis.
The saddest irony of the affair is that it took Khashoggi’s brutal murder to push other aspects of MBS’ authoritarian rule onto the front pages. One man’s murder cast a new light on the smearing and harassment of dozens of dissenters abroad and their detention at home, a campaign run by MBS’ main “fixer” at the Royal Court, the indifference to civilian suffering in Yemen, the shakedown of the corrupt at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh last November.
Most significantly, there’s new scrutiny of the temperament of MBS himself. No longer the courageous and even visionary pioneer, he is redrawn as petulant, naive and impulsive.
Will bin Salman’s leadership divide the Kingdom?
The repercussions of Khashoggi’s murder will be long-lasting. Will MBS be chastened or emboldened? Will his ailing father try to restrain him with a circle of more seasoned advisers? Does he have the skills to continue the reform program, or will his leadership ultimately divide the Kingdom?
Regionally, this crisis has laid bare a potentially dangerous divide. For more than a year Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have effectively put Qatar under a blockade, accusing it of support for terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood (which they see as synonymous) and of accommodating Iran, the Saudis’ sworn enemy. But Qatar has withstood the embargo, not least because Turkey has offered support through trade and a garrison of Turkish troops in the emirate.
In March, bin Salman described Turkey as part of a “triangle of evil” that included Iran and other extremist groups. Despite efforts by Saudi diplomats to finesse the comment, Ankara got the message.
Two regional blocs are emerging: the Saudis, Egypt and their Gulf allies, backed by the US and (quietly) Israel versus Turkey, Qatar and (quietly) Iran, backed by Russia. Now even Kuwait seems to be running scared of Saudi belligerence; it has just signed a military cooperation agreement with Turkey.
The Red Sea – one of the world’s most important sea lanes – has become one theater of competition for these blocs, with naval bases being built in Sudan and Somalia.
Even as this crisis was unfolding, Erdogan delivered a speech in which he asserted that Turkey was the natural leader of the Muslim world. A close adviser, Ilnur Cevik, contrasted the “negative attitudes” of MBS with the more measured King Salman, who he said “appreciates the effort” by Turkey to show sensitivity in the case.
So long as Erdogan is in power the fundamental rivalry between Ankara and Riyadh will continue. He is an Islamist in the mold of the Muslim Brotherhood and celebrated its triumph in Egypt in 2011. He was strongly opposed to the overthrow of Mohamed Morsy, the former Egyptian president, in a coup widely viewed as Saudi-backed.
Erdogan’s template for Muslim societies may have been tarnished by his authoritarian tendencies, especially since the attempted coup in 2016. But for many (Khashoggi included) the Turkish leader’s support for the notion of “political Islam” is the alternative to Saudi/Egyptian leadership of the region.
Against this background, it’s hard to disagree with Hassan Hassan when he says: “Washington won’t reorganize its alliances in the Middle East just because it’s lost a fig leaf.”
Khashoggi’s horrifying death has not brought the best out of (most of) the international community. It has given way to cynical, transactional calculation. And as Oscar Wilde said, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”