Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has dominated the news for just about the entirety of October and November. Fresh into December, the repercussions are still lingering; Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) relative isolation at last week’s G20 summit was not missed by the media.
For those who follow the general headlines, the dramatis personae in this unfolding story seem only too obvious. Turkey claims to have evidence of MBS’ involvement, while the CIA has echoed similar sentiments. In addition, the Saudi authorities have not helped themselves by giving wildly different accounts of Khashoggi’s death.
But while it is easy to point at Saudi Arabia as the antagonist, Turkey the exemplar of international justice, and USA as indecisive hegemon, there is in fact quite a lot to unpack here.
What has Riyadh been attempting to do?
Right now, Saudi Arabia is attempting to fight fires it has itself ignited and fed.
Inconsistent narratives from Saudi spokespersons, a widely publicised CCTV footage of a Saudi agent acting as Khashoggi’s double, and well-documented records of agents travelling in and out of Turkey are cornering the Kingdom in the face of damning proof of MBS’s involvement. Foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir has since gone on CNN multiple times in attempts to calm the press, while other public Saudi statements have attempted to distance MBS from the case.
The Kingdom has even gone as far as to relax travel restrictions on Khashoggi’s family, and announced that several key position holders were fired.
Even then, there was initially no indication that they would be tried, despite being detained along with some agents. Only later was it announced that five of the detainees would be executed, possibly to further shift attention away from MBS by scapegoating the operatives.
With close to half of the Saudi economy still reliant on oil, any major fallout now could be disastrous. Already, several multinational corporations have withdrawn their investments from the Kingdom, particularly from the Future Investment Initiative conference in late-October.
Key Saudi economic and business reforms in recent years have been MBS-led initiatives, but as he becomes increasingly incriminated and scrutinised, investors are growing wary. The business community is only just awakening to the massive contradictions between Saudi Arabia’s market liberalisation and continued political suppression, at the same time casting ominous clouds over the Saudi economy.
With the spotlight on MBS, the mask slips sufficiently to reveal a man not quite in touch with an international rules-based order. Such gross human rights violations might have been tolerated – even encouraged – in the Saudi backyard, but the young prince and his followers are beginning to discover the limits to his authority on the much larger world stage.
At last week’s G20 summit, the prince cut a lonely figure, despite receiving a rather boisterous greeting from Russia’s Vladimir Putin. UK PM Theresa May and French president Emmanuel Macron laid bare their displeasure with the heir apparent at the summit, with the latter caught uttering the words “you never listen to me”.
Clearly, the West has not been entirely taken with the prince’s charm offensive.
But if there is any measurable amount of positive outcome so far, Saudi Arabia has announced its support for UN peace efforts in Yemen, with Adel al-Jubeir stating that the Saudis “are committed to delivering all the necessary humanitarian aid to [our] brothers in Yemen.”
However, a UK-sponsored UN Security Council resolution seeking to cease hostilities and to allow influx of humanitarian aid in Yemen was halted recently, purportedly due to MBS’s heated protests over it. According to CNN, one diplomatic source was quoted saying,”The Saudis are hugely sensitive – ultra, ultra sensitive – to international perceptions. They hate criticism. And MBS brings a whole new level of paranoia about this.”
For the foreseeable future, it appears that Saudi Arabia will continue to drag the case out as long as possible while shielding MBS. The crown prince is perhaps a national leader far too important to be criminalised by his kingdom, nor by the international community. It will be a test of the prince’s credentials to see how he responds to this. Already the vultures are circling; another misstep could just cost him the throne.
The view from Ankara is one of opportunity. Turkey is eager to receive some good press, and it stands to gain from this episode.
Certainly, Turkey is no stranger to political subjugation, with the 2016 coup attempt leading to mass purges and jailing of suspects. The words ‘free and independent press’ and ‘Turkey’ are not usually strung in the same sentence either.
In that sense, Khashoggi’s murder has served as a golden opportunity for a diversion.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be leveraging upon this opportunity to also reclaim some favour in the West and in the Middle East region, as Turkey’s relationship with Iran begins to thaw. The Republic has voiced its support for Qatar after the Saudi blockade incident, and also spoken out against renewed US sanctions on Iran.
Erdogan’s rocky relationship with MBS has been well documented, with the Turkish leader having made known his preference for de jure ruler King Salman on many occasions. An op-ed written by Erdogan for the Washington Post earlier last month proclaimed Salman’s innocence in Khashoggi-gate, but failed to extend that generosity to his progeny. In fact, the entire article did not contain even a single mention of MBS.
However, Erdogan will be wary of going too far with his subtle provocations of MBS, because of their relationships with Trump (as they did with previous administrations) and to maintain friendly relations with King Salman.
What Erdogan can hope to achieve though, is a bargain with both sides that would ultimately aid Turkey in becoming a more pre-eminent actor in the region while ensuring the world looks past its abuses just a while longer. Turkey wants the best of both worlds: Keep the flow of investment monies coming from US, Europe and Saudi Arabia, while exerting a greater influence over the Arabic world.
So far, the international community is leaning in favour of Turkey as it continues to inflict subtle blows on Saudi credibility. Already, UN Secretary-General António Guterres was said to be “deeply troubled” and called for a “prompt, thorough, transparent” probe into Khashoggi’s death, and the European Union has been reported to be contemplating punitive sanctions against the Saudis.
That is not to say that Turkey’s claims are wholly trustworthy. Its state media has been adept at driving international sensation over the case and drumming up pressure on the Saudis, but contradicting statements issued by Ankara regarding the disposal of Khashoggi’s body have also given cause for doubt.
One such statement claimed that the body was dissolved in acid, while another posited that operatives dismembered the parts and dumped them in a forest. Unhelpful as they are, these claims then become mere speculation rather than methodical investigation, employed to prod Saudi Arabia to disclose something closer to the truth in response to excited allegations.
Even so, Turkey is treading a fine line. The country’s abysmal human rights record will not be forgotten in a hurry, and the stench of hypocrisy is not one that is easy to mask. Its recent attempts at conciliation with Iran and Russia, while attempting to provide moral authority in Khashoggi-gate speaks very plainly to its ulterior foreign policy motives.
When allying with the liberal West and exercising questionable political pressure, the hand it has drawn only has just a few more trump cards than bad ones. They will do well to play that hand right.
US President Donald Trump’s initial reluctance to chide MBS can be reasonably attributed to inertia. Like his predecessors, Trump has maintained close relations with Saudi Arabia, going as far to allow continual mass consignments of arms to the Kingdom (allegedly mostly used to quell dissent and for a questionable intervention in Yemen).
Against the cacophony of anti-MBS sentiment however, the President’s initially tepid reaction has turned into condemnation against “those responsible”. One might have hoped for sanctions to go with the change in rhetoric, but the White House has remained staunchly resistant to what it deems to be harsh measures.
Only as recent as last week, reports have circulated that the White House has attempted to block CIA director Gina Haspel from briefing Senators on investigations, a decision that has incensed Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker.
With lawmakers soon to vote on a resolution to end US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, Haspel’s briefing is vital. The resolution was tabled earlier this year, but its chances of passing are stronger now in light of the Khashoggi murder, despite appeals from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Should the resolution pass – and all evidence now suggests that it should – the US president will be forced into the unenviable position of picking sides. Should he cooperate with Congress and sign the bill, or veto it in favour of maintaining favourable relations with the Saudis?
With an election in two years and the war proving unwinnable in Yemen, Trump may well move to withdraw troops. The President’s capricious nature means that he is not averse to throwing his allies under, as he has shown on multiple occasions and most recently with Michael Cohen.
No matter the outcome of this shifty case, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia’s foreign relations will change much in the grand scheme of things.
Its position as a major oil exporter and fervent ally of US security policy makes it relatively impervious than most to criticism. If indeed Trump lets MBS slink away from the case, he permits the tyrannical leader to carry on with his subjugations, maintaining the status quo that both sides have established.
Like his predecessors – no matter their political leanings – Trump would overlook the inhumane persecutions of USA’s resource allies, and no one should expect his replacement to be any different.
But if it is of any comfort to the common individual, at least the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi shines a greater spotlight on the despotic state of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.