By Alain Gabon
It is difficult to decide who, between Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Donald Trump, has been more deceitful regarding the Khashoggi murder. Trump has become the main spokesperson, spinmeister and PR official for Saudi Arabia and MBS, while the propaganda machine and intelligence services of the “Crown Prince” have tried to make the world swallow a preposterous and blatant official lie when they explained that Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist in his 60s, “died in a fist fight” with fifteen professional assassins sent from Riyadh to Istanbul’s Saudi consulate. Between the suggestion that it may have been “rogue killers” who murdered Jamal without the knowledge or approval of MBS (an impossibility in the current situation of the Saudi royal court), to declaring the bogus Saudi “investigation” a “good and big first step” and parroting all the talking points of MBS’ spin machine itself, Trump has become Saudi Arabia’s main puppet and official propagandist.
Journalists and media pundits, Western and other media, think tanks, foreign policy experts on Saudi Arabia, ambassadors, elected representatives, foreign governments, and the general public did not buy into the Saudi reports. The backlash against this attempt by the U.S. President to cover up a foreign assassination and act of international terrorism has been so vigorous that it seems to have forced Trump to somewhat modify his position—he is now expressing “dissatisfaction” and admitting he has “doubt” about the veracity of the Saudi account, whose credibility was concisely and accurately summarized by Jamal’s Washington Post editor, Karen Attiah, in a two-word tweet: “Utter B*******t.”
Most sources immediately detected myriad problems in the Saudi account. For example, how could a 60-year old man possibly escalate a “fight” against fifteen much younger and more vigorous members of MBS’ secret services, including several of his own bodyguards? Why were they there to ambush him in the first place? If he died “accidentally,” why were no ambulances, paramedics, or coroner ever called and brought to the consulate during the hours that followed? Why wasn’t Jamal’s fiancée—who was waiting for him outside for hours— ever informed, including after his death? What were the personal bodyguards of MBS himself doing in Istanbul as part of that team? And of course: since he died inside the Saudi consulate and those fifteen Saudi officials who killed him there are now back to the KSA in the hands of MBS, where is the body? Even if we were to accept the joint Trump/MBS “rogue killers” theory (since the men who killed Jamal have been in possession of the Saudi authorities for already two weeks), at this point, they must at least know the location of the body.
Jamal Khashoggi was never a dissident, a radical critic of the Saudi regime, a “liberal,” a secularist, nor a revolutionary. He was a lifelong regime insider, strong supporter of the Kingdom and its monarchy, and fervent Saudi nationalist. He was also the grandson of the physician of Ibn Saud (none other than the founder and first monarch of the KSA), and nephew of one of the Kingdom’s biggest arms dealer. Until recently, he was also a Saudi intelligence agent and unofficial advisor to some of the most powerful members of the KSA’s business, intelligence, and political ruling elite, including a slew of prominent princes from the royal family itself.
Seven Reasons to Kill Khashoggi
Though Khashoggi was very much a pillar of the system and royal court, at most a reformist or “unreconstructed democrat,” MBS still had plenty of motivations to eliminate him. First, Jamal was very much affiliated with factions and individuals within the Saudi regime who had been excluded or marginalized by the new Crown Prince in his révolution de palais. Second, Jamal—whose criticism of MBS’ policies (such as the war in Yemen) had lately become more virulent—was fair game to the absolutist monarch who cannot stand even the mildest forms of opposition to his personal one-man rule. Third, the brand of “political Islam” he favored and championed was a cross between those of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—namely, MBS’ top three bêtes noires, since they represent the opposite model (within Islam) of the boy King’s own rule. Fourth, Jamal was about to launch a pro-democracy think tank named DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now), which would no doubt have undermined further MBS’ own PR operation in the West. Khashoggi was now clearly moving into politics as well. Fifth, he was very well connected to and respected by countless journalists, think tanks and media (not limited to the Post) who were frequently using him as a source and reference. Worse for MBS, he was developing contacts with high level U.S. politicians and state officials too. His influence was already substantial, and destined to grow. Sixth, as a longtime Saudi royal court insider who had worked for the Kingdom’s top intelligence officers, he was also most likely knowledgeable about certain secrets regarding MBS, and as such, represented a permanent threat to the already paranoid Crown Prince.
Last but not least, as David Hearst compellingly explains, Jamal Khashoggi’s choice to locate his future think tank in Washington D.C. could not have represented a worse, more unwelcome development for MBS himself: our Prince was now contemplating having a respected, influential and well-connected opponent permanently (unlike him) located right in the heart of the Saudi soft power and influence, Capitol Hill. Thanks to his new tool DAWN, the already influential and high-profile opponent risked becoming a real rival, a critic ideally positioned to offer to the U.S. ruling elite (namely, MBS’ own major allies) a possible alternative to the Crown Prince’s far less open vision and absolutist practice of power as non-consensual and vertical.
It was therefore unthinkable for MBS to let that happen. Khashoggi had to go before becoming a political adversary and a counter-model, and he had to go before he became for MBS what Fethullah Gülen in his own American retreat had been for Erdogan: a big thorn in his thigh, an alternative vision of the practice of Saudi rule, and a permanent threat to MBS’ supremacy and soft power in the U.S. As Hearst suggests, the Washington D.C. location for his DAWN think tank may therefore have sealed Jamal Khashoggi’s fate, by convincing MBS that it was now or never. In addition, this sick episode has “MBS” written all over it. In its ruthlessness, it is classic Mohammed bin Salman, all the way down to its messy, abject amateurishness and the backlash it is now provoking.
One Victim Among Many
The shockwave provoked in much of the world by this assassination—a true act of state terrorism at its most barbaric—should not cause us to forget that such methods including death squads are routine for the Saudi regime, and that they have considerably increased and worsened under this new de-facto juvenile head of state. Both before and during MBS’ rule, scores of journalists, activists, intellectuals, princes and members of the royal court have been kidnapped and disappeared, sometimes to be found months later in jail, sometimes never to be seen again. One could also consider that the level of personalization, media coverage and political reactions provoked by the disappearance of one man contrasts sharply with the silence or indifference of our governments and media regarding the far worse massacres and war crimes committed by MBS and his allies in Yemen against equally innocent and defenseless victims—men, women, children, babies, and entire families included. A sense of proportion has been lost here to the personalized-personable dimension of this affair (it is always easier to identify with one concrete man than with an entire population like the Yemenites or an abstraction like “the Yemen war”), but also to the fact that because Jamal was a journalist, his peers have rallied around his cause, since in our media’s twisted and macabre arithmetic of death, the killing of one well-known journalist (especially a Western one) will always deserve more coverage and outrage than the slaughter of 1,000 anonymous foreigners. But if Jamal Khashoggi’s death also serves to remind us that he was vigorously opposed to MBS’ atrocious war in Yemen, he will not have died in vain.
It should also remind us that, given that Saudi Arabia is headed by an assassin and war criminal, it is no coincidence that all of MBS’ major allies are themselves states headed by assassins and war criminals: Sisi’s Egypt, Israel, Bahrain, and the U.A.E. Even the U.S., MBS’ main ally, has now itself, thanks to the Patriot Acts, made extra-judicial assassinations through drones or special forces as American as apple pie.
Regional and Geopolitical Dimensions of Khashoggi’s Murder
Besides the reasons evoked above, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi has immediately acquired a strong regional and international dimension which may change the geopolitical dynamics at work in that part of the world. That is also what gives so much traction to this tragic and sordid affair. Not only does it concern the new and powerful Saudi Crown Prince and future Monarch of a key strategic, economic, military, and religious player, but the fact that Khashoggi was murdered in Turkey guaranteed that his assassination was going to be immediately embroiled in the competition between these two major rival regional powers (Turkey and the KSA itself) for leadership over the Sunni world (Turkey claiming or aspiring to that leadership in the name of its Ottoman Empire past, with the KSA playing its card as “guardian of Islam’s holy sites”). And though he himself was in no way responsible for that terrorist act, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan has since skillfully (cynically, some would say) exploited it for several geopolitical goals: as leverage against the KSA, most likely to extract concessions including possibly financial ones at a time when the Turkish economy is in trouble and needs foreign investments; as a way to diminish MBS’ stature (his religious and moral stature included) and influence in the region and beyond, for example by leaking one horrific detail at a time, a method that makes Erdogan look like the more moral and genuinely Islamic leader and viable partner; to undermine the KSA’s soft power in the world; to possibly pressure them to avoid further aggressions against Iran and certainly a war, which Erdogan would consider a disaster for the region; to push off the news’ headlines regarding his own crackdown on journalists; and to try to mend Turkey’s seriously damaged relation with the U.S. and other Western powers.
Although he keeps promising to show “the naked truth” to the world, Erdogan seems to refuse to share the hard audio evidence he claims to have. Instead, he keeps building up the suspense, offering promises of major news followed by anti-climactic press conferences and speeches where little is revealed, and plays cat-and-mouse with MBS by subjecting him to hypodermic leaks day after day, no doubt in order to keep him on edge in a vulnerable position. The whole orchestrated Turkish drama seems intended to keep the Khashoggi death in the news as long as possible in order to prolong the shock, and to extract as many concessions from the KSA as Erdogan possibly can under the tacit threat of allowing the hard evidence to explode in MBS’ face. Erdogan is definitely milking this story for what it’s worth, exploiting it to his advantage as much as he can. In that respect, it is therefore not in Turkey’s interest to share that alleged evidence, since once this concludes, Erdogan will have no more cards to play against MBS. Like Trump, Erdogan has actually spared MBS, whom he never blamed directly for this murder, even declaring he trusted his good faith. As the French would say, though cynical, c’est de bonne guerre (it’s fair game).
It remains to be seen whether Erdogan will succeed in his delicate balancing act of geopolitical repositioning, and whether the current balance of power between the two rival leaders will be modified substantially. But anything that weakens the KSA automatically affects its allies as well, most notably the UAE, while strengthening its adversaries like Qatar and Iran. In the meantime, there is no doubt that the Crown Prince and Saudi Arabia itself have been severely weakened by this affair: bin Salman’s charm offensive and self-serving propaganda to the West as a “modernizer,” “moderate,” and “liberal reformer” (a PR operation that was already in the process of collapsing) is now over. His global image and reputation is thoroughly destroyed, his new persona a sadistic and dangerous rogue, flanked by equally foolish liars no one believes. It has also become cruelly obvious that MBS has sabotaged his own rule, whose every enterprise—from the war in Yemen to the blockade of Qatar to the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister—has systematically ended up in abject failure. For this “Crown Prince,” regardless of his fate now, there will be a before and after Jamal Khashoggi.
A Key Moment for Saudi-World Relations?
Jamal Khashoggi’s death has turned out to be incredibly harmful for MBS’ rule. Besides revealing to the world his despotic nature and ending for good his propagandist campaign to portray himself as a reformist monarch, bin Salman’s cornerstone Vision 2030 economic grand master plan has also been undermined (just when the KSA is in dramatic need of foreign investment and Vision 2030 had already turned out to be more than a little uncertain following some major setbacks). Critics and dissidents both inside and outside the KSA are now openly asking that MBS be removed from his position as Crown Prince or that at the very least he be flanked by a Vice-Crown Prince to limit his so far unchallenged one-man rule. Entire factions and powerful members of the royal family and court, whom MBS infuriated, alienated, excluded and purged, are now being given a golden opportunity to pressure his father, King Salman, to choose another heir to the throne. At the very least it has become obvious that MBS, because of his recklessness, brutality, hubris and incompetence, is a clear and present danger to the whole Kingdom itself.
In the U.S., bin Salman’s major foreign ally, the outrage, disgust, and strong reactions (included from GOP officials) elicited by this affair has been mildly embarrassing for Trump, who for the moment appears to be on the defensive about his unconditional support to the Crown Prince. A wedge has been opened between Trump and Congress, including influential members of his own majority, who unlike Trump have never been enthusiastic about MBS or the KSA itself for that matter. Trump has been forced into appeasement mode, while the privileged U.S.-Saudi alliance is once again, like after 9-11, being re-examined and openly questioned in both the media and Congress. Much hope is being invested in the possibility that the Khashoggi murder will remain a global issue and possibly cause MBS’ replacement and exclusion from the throne, and if not, that it will at least lead to a critical reconsideration of the extremely strong Western strategic partnership between the KSA and the U.S. and E.U.
Wishful Thinking and a Flash in the Pan?
David Hearst, one of the fiercest critics of MBS, a personal friend of Khashoggi, and the founder of the Middle East Eye thus compares his killing to a Category 4 hurricane. He forgets however that even Category 4 hurricanes have a short life span, that even the worst of them weaken, recede and disappear, that the damage is quickly cleaned up, and order is restored. Rather, I predict that “Realpolitik” (in its worst, most cynical and counterproductive version) will prevail, that all the current impassioned debates, Congressional initiatives about the War Powers Resolution or the Magnitsky Act, and vibrant international calls for an independent investigation will lead nowhere, and that the worst consequences (for MBS and the KSA) will be some temporary travel bans, visa limitations, and possible suspensions of arms sales (only to be resumed a year or two later as was the case after the Rabaa massacre of Egyptian general el-Sisi).
There are many reasons to remain skeptical about a potential reshuffling of the global or regional order and a different, better geostrategic balance of power. For once, the one leader who has the power to hurt and corner MBS further while adding considerable pressure on the West for sanctions against the KSA—Turkish President Erdogan—has, as explained above, no interest in a direct clash against Saudi Arabia. He has been playing the Khashoggi murder in a savvy and strategic manner, sparing the Prince while using this tragedy as an opportunity to restore the broken U.S.-Turkish relation. Turkey is most definitely the biggest winner of this affair. Second, Mohammed bin Salman has so far lost none of the support of the two major Saudi kingmakers: his own father, and the American President. Third, the attacks against MBS have actually led his longtime regional allies (Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain) to close ranks even tighter around him and come to his defense in a unanimous display of reaffirmed support and esprit de corps among the region’s local tyrants and bloody assassins. Fourth, we should not underestimate how extensive and deep the reach of Saudi Arabia is, not just in its own region, but in the rest of the world as well. The web of mutual economic (oil, foreign investments, etc.), strategic, and military interests that link Saudi Arabia with a number of other nations in myriad ways (even academic) will always trump the death of one man (or even one million). To think that any nation, especially the U.S., will risk even a penny of Saudi money and perceived economic and geostrategic interests is unlikely to say the least. Fifth, the latest signs regarding this affair show the winds are already turning in favor of MBS: he has successfully managed to buy himself time with his bogus “investigation,” while Trump was helping him get the diplomatic clean-up operation under way; the Macron-Merkel dynamic duo are gesturing ineffectively and pathetically about a possible future “common EU response” in ways that suspiciously look like they, too, are seeking to buy MBS time, referring to “the need to punish those responsible” without ever mentioning MBS himself; the “Davos in the Desert” future investment summit suffered from the pull out of many CEOs and institutions like the IMF, but it did take place and cannot be described as the total failure many predicted. (Besides the fact that no one present there seemed particularly embarrassed, it is also safe to assume the few companies that for PR reasons could not attend so soon after the killing will be back there within a year or so); the Saudis, so far on the defensive, are growing back some fangs and teeth, denouncing the “hysteria” over the Khashoggi case and refusing to extradite their fifteen assassins as Turkey requested; and a few weeks after his death, Jamal Khashoggi is already a fair target for right-wing character assassination campaigns.
None of this signals that MBS, much less “the KSA itself and its Emirati sidekick, are heading into dark times.” Lastly, we should never underestimate the effect of our short-attention span culture and how effectively it serves despots of all sorts, allowing them to rapidly kick embarrassing news off the headlines. The fate of Jamal may sadly be no different than the fate of countless other victims of those regimes, and we will see how high he has remained in political agendas a mere six months from now.
Many currently hope this tragedy will offer Western heads of states, governments and rulers a golden opportunity to critically appraise our foreign policy and relations with the Arab world. Those who believe that mean well, but may suffer from a short attention span. The opportunity for an upheaval in the Arab world was offered, and spectacularly so, during the Arab Spring in 2011. No Western power took it, not even Obama, who could barely hide how worried he was at the fact that the Arab Spring could succeed, how relieved he obviously felt once the revolution was over, and how fast he (and others like French President Hollande) resumed business as usual, arms sales included, without even waiting for the hundreds of dead bodies from Sisi’s massacres to get cold. Besides “expressing concern,” none of those nations made a move in 2013 either, when Sisi committed a military coup against the democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi, then the worst massacre of defenseless civilians in modern Egyptian history. And in 2015, when bin Salman launched his murderous war in Yemen, Obama gave him his support, thus wasting a third consecutive historic opportunity to delegitimize brutal dictatorships.
To think this blind “realpolitik” atavistic behavior would change because of the death of one man, no matter how deep the shock has been these past four weeks, is pure wishful thinking. What is likely to continue is the prevailing “He may be a son of a bitch but at least he is our son of bitch” school of foreign policy. Yet, I genuinely hope to be proven wrong and that, at the very least, the Saudi royal court and the rival factions opposed to MBS will muster enough courage to stop his accession to the throne and put their nation’s interests first.
Alain Gabon is an Associate Professor of French Studies based in the United States. He is the head of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Virginia Wesleyan University and has written numerous papers and articles on contemporary France and Islam in Europe for academic journals and think tanks, including Britain's Cordoba Foundation and mainstream media outlets, such as Saphirnews and Les cahiers de l'Islam.