The ruthless murder of Jamal Khashoggi sent shivers down the spine of international audiences, caused a media frenzy- supported by the Turkish authorities’ media strategy, created a Cold War atmosphere and finally managed to cause international embarrassment, both to the House of Saud and to their Western allies. Something that had not happened for the past three years with the tens of thousands of Yemeni dead and the continuous repression of dissident voices, journalists, human and women rights’ activists.
The Khashoggi affair exposed the true colours of a dynasty in troubled waters, internally and on the world stage. Back in 2001, there was a more solid and united royal front aiming to shield the kingdom from total isolation internationally. Nowadays the picture is different and it could potentially prove even more damaging than the 9/11.
Pretty much all of the senior princes that spent decades building the very special relationship with the West had spent time in US colleges and UK military academies, investing in understanding the political culture of the Western leaders they dealt with and cultivating a customised foreign policy for the deeply tribal kingdom.
The MBS factor
In his mid-30s, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – or MBS – does not have the experience of an established political leader, much unlike his foe in this affair, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Nor did MBS have international experience and connections to the West. And yet he was named Deputy Crown Prince and given a long list of other titles in 2015. At the time, there were voices within the kingdom and abroad raising the alarm over his credentials and hot-headed character.
But since this stellar ascent begun, he quickly managed to amass incredible power in his hands, tightening the grip over the family and making himself accountable only to his father. After he was made Crown Prince in 2017, ousting his experienced cousin Mohammed bin Nayef, MBS very quickly turned into the West’s true ‘habibi’ with his modernising fervor, his ‘reformative agenda’ and ‘Vision 2030’ aiming at diversifying the economy by improving public sectors such as health, education and infrastructure and thus reducing the dependence on oil income.
This ‘new’ and ‘young’ image of the royals and the very-well advertised reforms he was pushing for helped turn a blind eye to worrying signs of authoritarianism. His obsession with fighting corruption in the kingdom reflected his true tendencies, which many think are too authoritarian even by Saudi standards.
In the past two years he didn’t hesitate to lead a purge against members of the royal family, locking up Saudi princes in the Ritz-Carlton, to imprison numerous activist voices, to wage a diplomatic war against Qatar, break ties with Canada and get involved in a bizarre effort to force Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign. Most importantly, the continuous face-off with Iran in the region has led to an unprecedented humanitarian disaster in Yemen, in a devastating war of which he was the architect in his capacity as Defence Minister.
Turning the loyal voices into critics
Far from being an all-out dissident, Khashoggi spoke out of concern for his country and called for a change in this alarming direction the kingdom was taking, under the leadership of MBS and his court.
He spent decades close to the Saudi establishment and intelligence apparatus and having reported on historical moments such as the Afghan War and the 9/11, he had an idea of what was wrong with his country and what could change, both in its foreign and domestic policies. He also chose to either report or to keep silent on thorny issues during his years in Riyadh.
A very well connected man, he called for modern solutions to the modern problems of his country without seriously undermining the monarchy. He believed that a more open critique would lead to the debate necessary for a true transformation of the country. Eventually, he became more critical towards the government and more open to giving voice to the opposition. He was fired from Al-Watan twice in the past, and later on, banned from Twitter and barred from writing.
From the US he also spoke about the need for expression in the Arab world as the only way towards true progress. He called for more open-mindedness and urged the young prince (the ‘Boy’ as he implied other royals called MBS) to be less impetuous.
But by directly pointing towards MBS, Khashoggi committed a lese majeste that cost his life.
His murder was a clear message that nobody is safe, not even the slightest opposing voice, not even outside Saudi Arabia, and underlined the recklessness of the current leadership.
Most worryingly, the Khashoggi affair revealed that the question of human rights and freedom of speech, including the treatment of journalists and dissenters is continuously targeted and that these voices will be more persecuted by governments that think they will get away with it.
The lukewarm reaction by President Donald J. Trump to fake news underlines exactly this message, that the slaying without consequences is a green light to authoritarians to kill any inconvenient voice or opponent worldwide.
The clumsiness in which Saudi Arabia has dealt with the whole operation itself and the massive outrage that followed was a huge embarrassment for the royal family and will definitely cause discussions over the line of succession. It is also a reminder that we are not in the Cold War anymore and that modern tactics lack in discretion and class as compared to the previous century.
But realism is still here and from a geopolitical point of view, Saudi Arabia’s embarrassment is equally important. It was dragged into acknowledging the gruesome facts in the way and time that the Turkish president wished (himself not exactly the champion of freedom of expression), to which it now responds by refusing to extradite the 18 arrested for the murder.
The diplomatic face-off reflects the regional power play where the two are key rivals: since Turkey took the side of its close ally Qatar when the latter was made the target of a diplomatic attack by Saudi Arabia – again a plan masterminded by the mighty MBS. In this affair, Egypt and the UAE, with whom Erdogan has fallen out badly, were quick to offer support to the Saudis.
By causing outrage over the killing, Saudi Arabia is shooting itself in the leg, damaging the well-constructed US-Israel-Saudi narrative that the source of all evil in the region is Iran, a partner that Mr Erdogan is working alongside in Syria and elsewhere.
Although relations are strained, the overall relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia is too important to destroy however complicated this is becoming. The Turkish president found this opportunity to gain leverage against his Sunni rival however he used cautious language towards King Salman and has refrained from naming MBS as the mastermind behind the Khashoggi killing.
The restrained tone is seen as a nod towards the Saudi king to move on and try to remedy this embarrassment. Nobody is irreplaceable and if Salman opted for removing MBS from his course to the throne, he would save face on a multitude of levels inside and out his country.
Far too many questions remain in the Khashoggi affair but the one that will likely go unanswered about Saudi Arabia is in everybody’s mind: What were they thinking?