It would have been comic if it was not so tragic. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and his minions have shown such remarkable incompetence and ineptitude in executing the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi on October 2 that in comparison, the Keystone Kops of the silent era look efficient and far-sighted.
The 15 murderers travelled from Riyadh to Istanbul in two private aircraft, landing on the day of the murder and leaving soon thereafter. Their routing is well documented.
They travelled with their own passports and so could be quickly identified as security and military personnel close to the crown prince, having travelled with him earlier, with pictures to prove their proximity to him.
This team, apparently sent to ‘persuade’ their misguided citizen to return home, curiously enough, included Saudi Arabia’s senior-most forensic doctor, an expert at autopsy and dismemberment, equipped naturally with the main tool of his trade – a bone saw. He listened to music as he went about his professional duties and asked his colleagues to do the same – nothing like music to lighten the tedium of murder.
They committed the murder in their country’s consulate: their victim Jamal Khashoggi was seen entering the premises for routine consular services against a prior appointment but not exiting. Surely, most diplomatic premises are under surveillance by the host country’s intelligence services – the Turks have said they have recordings of the visit and have been leaking them into the public domain in enticing driblets, making the murder a public event, and us as voyeurs of this ghastly deed.
The murder took place just three weeks before Saudi Arabia’s most prestigious event – the Future Investment Initiative conference, the “Davos in the Desert” – at which the world’s top politicians and corporate leaders would assemble to show solidarity with the kingdom’s grandiose vision for modernisation and reform and with the larger-than-life crown prince who presided over these plans of transformation and hope, and affirm themselves as full partners in realising these fabulous dreams.
Above all, the Saudis have no cover story, no plausible explanation to protect their dark prince and distance him from this dark deed. First, there was the bland denial – it was said that Khashoggi had left the consulate, though there was no sign of his exiting the premises while outside the consulate his fiancée was desperately awaiting his return. (Later reports showed the Saudis using a fake double impersonating Khashoggi exiting the consulate, but this carried no conviction since he made no contact with his fiancée.)
Then, as world attention intensified, there was a flurry of activity: a security team was hurriedly sent to Istanbul to ‘assist’ the Turkish authorities with their enquiries. Prince Khalid Al Faisal, senior royal family member and owner of the paper Al Watan, of which Khashoggi had been editor twice, was then sent to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on October 11 and report to the king; the latter, in his first public remarks, denied all knowledge but promised a detailed enquiry.
It is not known what Prince Khalid, from the most urbane and sophisticated branch of the Saudi royal family, is thinking now about the systematic dismemberment of his protégé who had first found his liberal voice in the columns of Al Watan 15 years ago.
From October 15 onwards, the “rogue elements thesis” began to gain ground – first tentatively from a Turkish official, then from President Donald Trump in Washington – providing a way out for the beleaguered kingdom and its crown prince; even names were mentioned of those who would be scapegoated.
As anticipated, in the late night of Friday, October 19, the kingdom broke its silence: it accepted that Khashoggi was dead, that he had died in the consulate, and that his death had been accidental – the discussion between the journalist and his “persuasive” interlocutors had got heated, which ended with one of the persuaders killing Khashoggi in a strangle-hold. The spokesperson also announced that two senior officials, Major General Ahmad al Assiri, deputy head of intelligence, and Saud al Qahtani, member of the royal court, had been dismissed, while 18 persons connected with the murder had been arrested.
Al Qahtani was accused of contributing “to an aggressive environment that allowed it [the events surrounding the murder] to escalate”. Later details from Turkish sources said that al Qahtani had closely monitored the murder through Skype and gave instructions to the team in the consulate. Al Qahtani has earlier been depicted as a Rasputin-like figure near the crown prince; while officially responsible for the prince’s media and communications, he has been aggressive in defending the prince against his enemies.
In a bizarre development, it was later reported that both the Saudi king and crown prince had called Khashoggi’s sons to convey their condolences. (They later came to the royal palace where, reports said, one was glaring at the crown prince.)
Following this incredible explanation, Saudi spokespersons went into another maze. When a cry arose for Khashoggi’s body so that the victim could be given a decent burial, the normally garrulous foreign minister, Adel al Jubair, who had preferred silence over the last two weeks, now entered the scene to say that the body was handed over to a “local co-operator” (sic) and that the Saudi government had no knowledge of where it was now.
Turkish police, in true ‘Scandi-noir’ style, have been scouring the dark woods nearby for the dismembered body of the liberal writer. A news report on October 23 said that body parts have been found in the garden of the consulate, crowning the incompetence of the murder team.
The ineptitude of Saudi officials has found its echo in its media, as its writers have struggled to whitewash the murder, defend their prince and issue dire warnings if their state were to be targeted with blame or sanctions. Veteran journalist Abdulrahman al Rashed pointed his fingers vaguely at “anti-Saudi axes” for the vicious campaign.
He also reminded his readers that Saudi oil was “indispensable” to international economic well-being, and that Saudi geopolitical influence could not be ignored as also its religious position at the heart of the Muslim world. Without naming Iran, he recalled to the Americans (and anyone else who cared to listen) that, amidst the division of West Asia into two blocs, Saudi support was “crucial” and could not be substituted by anyone else.
The Saudi paper Al Jazeera (separate from the Qatar-based television network) said that the attacks on the kingdom were primarily from Qatar-sponsored media and journalists who were unhappy with Saudi Arabia’s closeness to the US and hostility to Iran. Okaz echoed this, with the writer saying: “This [the murder] is nothing but a comedy act that turned to international media and was orchestrated by haters and ill-wishers in Qatar who were working day and night to come up with this skit.”
But, the prize for winning friends and influencing people should go to Turki al Dakheel, the head of the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television network. Responding to the threat of US sanctions on the kingdom, al Dakheel said on October 16 that Saudi officials were considering at least “30 counter-measures” which would be “catastrophic for the US economy”.
Among these, he listed: curtailment of Saudi oil production that would push oil prices to $100-200 and possibly twice that; accepting payment for oil in Chinese yuan instead of dollars; shifting Saudi affiliation to Russia and even providing the latter a military base in Tabuk; cutting weapons’ purchases from the US to Russia and China, and withdrawing Saudi investments in the US amounting to $800 billion. Perhaps al Dakheel’s most bizarre threat was that the kingdom would move closer to Iran and “perhaps reconcile with it”, suggesting that Saudi Arabia has no quarrel with Iran and its present hostility is only to appease the Trump White House.
Reverberations in the US
The confusion in Riyadh has been well-matched by the White House, with Trump simply unable to sustain righteous anger for the gruesome murder; his contempt for the media and his warmth for the Saudi prince have been the principal influences on him. The president initially said he was “very upset and angry” but would not cancel defence contracts as that would “hurt jobs”. On October 13, he promised “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia was found responsible for the killing.
Later, after the Saudi announcement accepting that Khashoggi was indeed dead, Trump described the arrests as “good first steps”, though he added that he was not fully satisfied. He said he would consider “some form of sanction” but “would prefer we don’t use as retribution” the arms’ deals he said he had concluded with the kingdom, though several commentators doubt both the value of the deals or even whether Saudi Arabia can do without US supplies. Other Western leaders have affirmed their dissatisfaction with the Saudi account, saying it lacks consistency and credibility, and demanding more detailed investigations.
Trump’s agenda has met with considerable opposition from the US Congress. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has been most forthright in attacking the crown prince: he called him “toxic” and a “wrecking ball” who had “this guy murdered” and that he’s “gotta go”. He also asked the president “to sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia”. Responding to details of the killing given by Saudi Arabia, the senator tweeted that to say he was “sceptical was an understatement”.
On October 10, a bipartisan group of 22 senators sent a letter to Trump asking for a federal investigation into Khashoggi’s ‘disappearance’, noting that the disappearance suggests he “could be a victim of a gross violation of internationally recognised human rights”.
The US corporate sector that just last year was fawning over the prince, seeing him, according to Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker, “as a messiah – in the mold of Gorbachev or Gandhi”, began to distance itself from him in the wake of the murder by withdrawing from the Saudi investment conference; these included the heads of Ford, Blackrock, Blackstone and JP Morgan, besides the IMF managing director and the finance ministers of France, Holland and the UK. Lobbyists for Saudi Arabia in the US, such as BGR, the Harbor Group and the Glover Park Group have prudently decided to withdraw from their lucrative Saudi contracts.
Responding to widespread criticism of Saudi conduct in the murder, Trump on October 23 appeared to affect a turn-around in his position by calling the Saudi narratives “one of the worst coverup in history of coverups” and even hinted at the crown prince’s involvement. They said he would leave it to Congress to take further action, including sanctions.
What has done most to upset the attempted cover-ups hatched in Riyadh and Washington and go back to business-as-usual have been the steady leaks of information relating to the killing from Turkish sources. After first saying that Khashoggi had been killed and giving details of the team, on October 10, within a week of Khashoggi’s ‘disappearance’, Turkish security fed the media with pictures of the 15-member assassination squad, complete with names and official positions.
Over the next few days, the Turks provided a steady stream of information which painted a clear picture of what happened inside the consulate after Khashoggi’s entry. The most horrendous were the details the Turks provided of the actual murder over seven minutes when Khashoggi “was first tortured, then mutilated, injected with a sedative, and finally dismembered” with a bone saw. Some Turkish accounts also said that the dismemberment might have started when Khashoggi was still alive.
All Saudi attempts at a cover-up were finally ended by Erdogan’s statement in parliament on October 23, coinciding with the inauguration with the Saudi investment conference in Riyadh. Even as his investigators announced the discovery of body parts in the consulate, the president rejected the Saudi narrative of a fist-fight and said: “Intelligence and security institutions have evidence showing the murder was planned … Pinning such a case on some security and intelligence members will not satisfy us or the international community. From the person who gave the order, to the person who carried it out, they must all be brought to account.”
Though he did not give details of evidence available with the Turkish police or specifically name the crown prince, he made clear where the ultimate blame lay when he said: “Saudi Arabia has taken an important step by admitting the murder. As of now we expect of them to openly bring to light those responsible – from the highest ranked to the lowest – and to bring them to justice.”
Soon after Erdogan’s speech, King Salman announced a thorough enquiry into the murder, pledging to hold Khashoggi’s killers to account “no matter who they may be”.
The crown prince
The brutality of Khashoggi’s murder, the crudeness with which it was carried out, the shoddy cover-up and the grossly inadequate attempts to distance the crown prince from it have raised several questions about the personality and power of the prince.
At the young age of 29 years, he had become defence minister and head of the supreme economic council, when his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, became the ruler in January 2015. He soon brought under his control both energy and intelligence, and within two years elbowed out two senior royals to become crown prince in June 2017.
Under the patronage of his 82-year-old father, he now has supreme political, military, intelligence, energy and economic authority in the country. This is an unprecedented scenario since the kingdom’s senior royals have usually functioned collegially, with a careful division of the levers of power amongst them.
There have been doubts about the prince’s capacity for the leadership of his country from the outset. Within two months of becoming defence minister, he launched “Operation Decisive Storm” against Yemen with a view to destroying the Houthis as a military and political power. He saw the Houthis as belonging to the Zaydi Shia community and hence lackeys of Iran, though few objective commentators agree with this assessment. Most see the Houthis as seeking legitimate political and economic space for themselves in their own country, large parts of which their imams had ruled for nearly a thousand years.
Though the Yemen conflict has gone on for over three years, there is no sign of a decisive military victory, though over 10,000 Yemenis are dead and the country faces prospects of an extraordinary humanitarian disaster, including a severe famine. Saudi air strikes have caused the deaths of hundreds of civilians, leading some Western politicians to raise complaints of human rights abuses and war crimes, but no country has done anything to challenge Saudi conduct.
On the domestic front, soon after he became crown prince, he began a campaign to destroy all possible sources of dissent and potential challenges to his power. In September last year, he arrested several intellectuals and clerics who he thought were opposed to his untrammelled authority. This was followed in November by the arrest and incarceration of about 300 royals and prominent business persons on charges of corruption. With the removal of Prince Miteb bin Abdullah as head of the national guard and the destruction of the business interests of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Prince Mohammed bin Salman now truly has complete power in the country.
Another initiative of the crown prince that occurred alongside the arrest of the princes was the detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh and compelling him to announce on Saudi television his resignation as prime minister, with trenchant criticism of Hezbollah and Iran. Hariri was saved by the personal intervention of French President Emmanuel Macron. This crude attack on a friendly head of government is said to have been personally supervised by Saud al Qahtani, and that Hariri was insulted and even beaten in detention.
But the crown prince’s coarse and violent behaviour did not ever elicit effective opposition or even criticism from any source, Arab or Western, which clearly emboldened the crown prince to trample on other sources of opposition or dissent.
Trump-crown prince ties
The principal source of the crown prince’s power is his deep and abiding affiliation with Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. This is a symbiotic relationship, with important shared interests on both sides. For Trump, defence contracts proffered by the prince and associated financial deals are of paramount importance, which the president exalts in public as creating a million jobs in the US.
Linked with this are two points on the president’s foreign policy agenda: Iran and Palestine. The crown prince shares the president’s visceral animosity for Iran, has applauded the rejection of the nuclear agreement, and is aligned with the US and Israel in a military confrontation against Iran in Syria and in effecting regime change in Tehran.
The crown prince had also attempted to force the Palestine Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas to accept Kushner’s Palestine plan, Trump’s “deal of the century”, that would have met Israel’s maximalist demands and put an end to Palestinian aspirations for all time. (Sensing the deep opposition to his son’s posturing on this sensitive issue across the Arab world, King Salman personally intervened in the matter and announced a joint Arab position that upheld Palestinian rights to a sovereign and viable state with East Jerusalem as its capital.)
As part of the Saudi-US symbiotic relationship, Trump has backed the idea of an Arab NATO led by Saudi Arabia that would sustain Saudi leadership in West Asia, in alliance with the Americans. Besides the war in Yemen, he has also supported the kingdom in its siege of Qatar that was imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies last year and remains in force. While the Houthis in Yemen are viewed as Iran’s surrogates, the attack on Qatar is seen as justified due to its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The re-imposition of sanctions on Iran following the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement has affirmed the crucial importance of these bilateral ties for the US: the withdrawal of about 1.6 million barrels per day (mpd) of Iranian oil from world markets will lead to massive price increases unless the Saudis step in with significantly increased production, which they alone seem capable of achieving. As the US goes in for mid-term polls on November 6, Trump, for immediate electoral reasons, needs to ensure that prices remain under control – and Saudi Arabia remains on his side.
This explains Trump’s ambivalent and vacillating response to the murder and the desperate search in Riyadh and Washington to shape a convincing way to bail out the crown prince.
This may prove difficult. To win favour with Trump and the US political and business establishment, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has projected himself as an economic and social reformer anxious to drag his backward, religion-ridden country into the 21st century. He announced his Vision-2030 two years ago that would take his country into the post-oil era, backed by a robust private sector and a youth that was trained to take jobs that would emerge from economic reform.
This was supported by grandiose plans, such as the NEOM, an urban development project that covers three countries – Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt – and throws up prospects for multi-billion dollar projects that have had American companies salivating.
In the social area, he lifted restrictions on driving by women. However, he refused to share credit with women activists who had been agitating for this change for at least two decades. As he detained some of these activists, he made it clear that only he personally could be the fountain-head of change in the country. He has also refused to effect real change by not doing away with the country’s guardianship rules that subordinate women to their male relatives throughout their lives. His reformist image has been tarnished beyond repair.
The prince’s erratic conduct was revealed in August this year when, in response to a tweet of the Canadian foreign minister mildly criticising the detention of two human rights activists in the kingdom, the crown prince broke diplomatic ties with Canada, suspended all air links and trade, and ordered thousands of Saudi students and medical patients to return home immediately.
Writing in The Atlantic early in the current crisis on October 12, Richard Sokolsky and Aaron David Miller described the crown prince as a “ruthless, reckless and impulsive leader” who was eager to silence all critics at home or abroad. They said that the Trump administration, by “kowtowing” to the prince, had “emboldened” him and given him “a sense of invincibility”, encouraging him to believe “there are no consequences for his reckless actions”.
Saudi Arabia has also somewhat crudely but effectively reminded the US of its strategic (and financial) importance: a cheque for $100 million was deposited into US accounts to pay for development of facilities in northeast Syria where the US is preparing a permanent base on the very day secretary of state Mike Pompeo landed in Riyadh to discuss the murder.
But Arab commentator Shadi Hamid notes that the kingdom’s feeble defence of its actions in the Khashoggi murder suggests that the crown prince “is in effect taunting Trump, gloating in his ability to get away with anything”, and doubts “the reliability of the ally” who is now central to the US’s West Asia policy.
What was it about Khashoggi that so irked the crown prince that he had to be put to death in so gruesome and pre-planned a manner? Some commentators have suggested that his plan to set up a think tank in Turkey, called Dawn, to promote democracy in the Arab world provoked the megalomaniac prince who brooks no opposition. But it is Khashoggi’s writings in the Washington Post over the last year, which were generally critical of the prince, coupled with his personal stature in global media, that encouraged Prince Mohammed bin Salman to liquidate him, possibly reflecting the ire of the exasperated Henry II all those years ago (and other autocrats who came later) who had demanded to know: “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
Khashoggi’s journalistic career went through several phases. He was in his 20s when he covered the “global jihad” in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And, yes, he was close to Osama bin Laden, as were all the top officials of the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan who were sponsors of this jihad, the first in the 20th century after the less-than-successful jihad called by the beleaguered Ottoman sultan at the beginning of the First World War.
If Osama was then the great hero of the Muslim (and the Western) world, Khashoggi was the hero-journalist of the jihad, who also interviewed Osama in 1987 and later met him twice in the 1990s, the last time in 1995. It is also noteworthy that during this period Khashoggi also came close to the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki Al Faisal who supervised the jihad from Riyadh and made regular visits to the frontline.
The 1990s in Saudi Arabia were a turbulent period when many in the country, dissatisfied with their leaders’ dependence on Western troops in the face of the threat from Saddam Hussain, began to clamour for wide-ranging reform under the umbrella of the “Sahwa (Awakening)” movement.
Though anchored in the country’s Wahhabi tradition, the Sahwa votaries borrowed political activism from the traditions of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose intellectuals had found sanctuary in Saudi Arabia from the 1950s and had nurtured the country’s Islamic institutions of higher education, while providing the Islamic studies syllabus and teachers in schools. It is possible that Khashoggi imbibed at least some influence from these activists: many years later, he castigated himself for his silence when the Sahwa activists were incarcerated and silenced.
Thus, by the turn of the century, Khashoggi had been exposed to the three main strands of contemporary political Islam: Wahhabiyya in his early life, jihad in the battlefields of Afghanistan, and the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s.
In 2003, Khashoggi became editor of the Al Watan newspaper, set up in 2000 in Abha by the Al Faisal family, when Prince Khalid Al Faisal was the governor of the Assir province, of which Abha is the provincial capital. He lasted 52 days: under his editorship, the paper published an article questioning the continued influence of the 14th century Muslim intellectual, Ibn Taymiyya. This article appeared in May 2003, a few days after the suicide attack on three residential compounds for foreign expatriates in which several persons were killed.
The writer, Khaled Al Ghanami, said that Ibn Taymiyya was wrong in several important respects in terms of Islamic doctrine. He also said that Ibn Taymiyya was “maximalist and one-dimensional”, and was “emotional and inclined to sentimentality”, which sometimes led him to issue fatwas that constituted “an unbalanced response”.
The kingdom was then struggling with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the royal family was pursuing the dual policy of appeasing the US abroad and the clergy at home. The latter found the article offensive and despite their stature, the Al Faisal family was no match for the power of the interior minister, Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz. Khashoggi was promptly sacked as editor five days later.
He was rescued by his old mentor, Prince Turki, who had resigned as intelligence chief ten days before 9/11, and in 2003 became ambassador to the UK and in 2005 to the US: Khashoggi accompanied him to both appointments as media adviser, building up substantial contacts in the British and American media. When Prince Turki resigned as ambassador to the US in 2007, Khashoggi was re-appointed editor of Al Watan. This time he lasted over two years, when he had to resign when a correspondent attacked some of the premises of Salafiyya, the fountainhead of Saudi state doctrine.
He warmly welcomed the Arab Spring, which he viewed as an Arab renaissance, and was deeply disappointed when the Brotherhood government headed by Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in a military-led coup d’etat. He was a prolific commentator on regional developments, wilfully stretching the limits of governmental tolerance.
In December 2014, he wrote in Saudi-owned Al Arabiya in favour of democracy: “Democracy, popular participation or shura [consultation] – call it what you wish – will inevitably be realised. It’s a natural and inevitable development of history. One of its most important conditions is the right to choose. … There is either complete democracy promised by any civilised constitution or no democracy.”
Soon after Prince Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in June 2017, Khashoggi went into self-exile and became a commentator with the Washington Post. His first article of September 2017 was titled: “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable”. He castigated the crown prince for the arrest of intellectuals and their “public shaming”. He spoke of “the climate of fear and intimidation” amidst promises of reform.
Khashoggi noted the contradiction in the Saudi position where it despised Brotherhood activists while itself being “the mother of all political Islam”. What Khashoggi did not clarify to Western readers was that both Wahhabiya and the Brotherhood are manifestations of political Islam in that they seek to imbue state order with Islamic precepts and values. But Wahhibiya gives the monopoly of political activism to the ruler: the latter is responsible for national security and welfare, while the citizens owe him loyalty and obedience. The Brotherhood on the other hand is activist in that all adherents have to be active role-players in the political order and provides scope for a wide range of political values and expression.
Thus, the divide between the crown prince and Khashoggi goes back at least a year, with the latter aligning himself with the activism of the Brotherhood and thus challenging the monopoly over political authority of the royal family, represented by the crown prince.
In fact, through the last year Khashoggi differed with the crown prince on almost all issues of national policy. The journalist reminded the prince that he was nurturing extremist clergy within his fold, those who believed that the Shia were not Muslims and robustly opposed all forms of reform. He criticised the prince’s confrontationist policies in the region, seeing them as “deepening tensions and undermining the security of the Gulf states”.
He was particularly exercised about the war in Yemen. He rejected the attacks on the Houthis and said that the Yemenis were only seeking their freedom. Again, just a couple of weeks before his murder, he called for a unilateral cease-fire in Yemen and end the violence. This would prepare the ground for Yemen’s diverse factions to shape their role in a future political order in the country; this initiative, the writer said, would “restore the dignity of the birthplace of Islam”. He criticised the Saudi siege of Qatar and its Lebanon policy.
In his article written in August this year, Khashoggi attempted to explain to Western readers the place of the Muslim Brotherhood in West Asia’s political landscape. The eradication of the Brotherhood, he said, “is nothing less than the abolition of democracy and a guarantee that the Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes”.
“There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it,” he categorically asserted. He quoted approvingly an Arab academic who said that Arab regimes’ opposition to the Brotherhood was part of their targeting “all those who practise politics, who demand freedom and accountability, and all who have a popular base in society”.
Perhaps this piece was the tipping point for the paranoid prince and firmed up his decision to silence Khashoggi permanently.
Outlook: The strategic scenario
Over the three weeks since the murder, commentators’ prognosis has evolved: first responses were that, however horrendous the killing, we would be back to business-as-usual, with Saudi Arabia and the US as cosy as before. But they failed to take into account how Turkey saw in this event an opportunity to revamp traditional relationships and reverse the regional security scenario.
But Turkey’s long-term interests are not only being shaped in terms of regional security; they are being defined in terms of competition within political Islam and signify throwing of the gauntlet by Turkey to assert its commitment to activist Islamism represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. As the summary of Khashoggi’s writings above has shown, he was a votary of activist Islam; he may have paid for this with his life, but his death has made his brand of politics more vibrant than ever before.
Saudi Arabia has been central to US strategic interests ever since the US wandered into the region even as the British withdrew east of Suez from the late 1960s-early 1970s. The US’s first regional surrogate partners were the Shah of Iran and the Wahhabi kingdom. This continued till the Islamic revolution in 1979, when Iran became a pariah state and Pakistan stepped to take its place. The alliance of the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan was tested in the battlefields of the Afghan jihad, and then the first Gulf war and the “dual containment” policies of the 1990s.
Saudi Arabia was briefly ousted as a strategic partner after the 9/11 attacks, but, as the US lost against the insurgency in Iraq, the kingdom re-affirmed its value to the Americans. While there was a certain cooling off during the Obama administration when the latter pursued the nuclear agreement with Iran, the robust relationship was restored when Trump came into the White House and made the kingdom a valued partner in his aggressive and confrontationist policies in the region.
Not surprisingly, even as the Khashoggi crisis escalated, Trump remained reluctant to abandon the kingdom, despite some crude Saudi writing that suggested dire “counter-measures” were the US to initiate action against the kingdom. But the wily Erdogan seems to have played the game efficiently; in fact, the Turkish approach has the finesse of a rapier as against the crude bludgeon of the Saudi, which also most often missed its mark and carried no conviction. As information oozed out of Istanbul day after day, public revulsion escalated, with Saudi Arabia, always used to having its way, found itself blindsided and finally quite alone: the stigma of murder and the bumbling attempts at cover-up have made association with it impossible.
Is the Khashoggi murder then that ‘significant moment’ in world affairs, one that in itself may not be earth-shaking, but somehow captures the moment and has a cascading impact beyond anything that seasoned observers could have anticipated? The pictures of the Abu Ghraib humiliations tarnished US occupation in Iraq permanently, encouraged the insurgency, and fully buried the vision of US regional domination shaped by the neo-cons in Washington.
The other such momentous event was the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia that dramatically brought hundreds of thousands of young Arabs to the streets, demanding freedom, democracy and dignity. And, while the Arab Spring may have failed, its message is alive and continues to haunt the palaces of Arab potentates. The Khashoggi murder is one such defining moment in the annals of West Asia.
The Khashoggi murder is an opportunity for Turkey to shape a new role for itself in West Asia, facilitated by the estrangement between the US and the desert kingdom. But it will go beyond the US, for the US itself has steadily lost credibility in the region (and in large parts of the world) and space has been created for new role-players – Russia, China, India and Turkey– and the shaping of a new post-US regional order. This order will eschew confrontation and seek to accommodate the legitimate interests of all regional powers.
The US will be encouraged to play a constructive role in this order, a role that rejects military interventions to address political issues, and to follow policies that are not dependent of the compulsions of its alliances with selected regional powers which then enjoy a free hand to pursue maximalist agendas. In fact, in the context of the Khashoggi murder, the distinguished writer Robert E. Hunter has called on the US “to reassess its entire strategy in the Persian Gulf region”. This would include not relying “so heavily on any one country or even a small group” to protect its interests in West Asia, a clear reference to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Outlook: Political Islam
The other area where Erdogan has challenged Saudi Arabia is in relation to political Islam. Both during and after the Cold War, the Saudi alliance with the US ensured the primacy of its brand of Islamism, while the activist Brotherhood had to endure execution, incarceration and exile for its members in authoritarian Arab states, culminating in the overthrow of the Morsi government in 2013.
The Khashoggi murder has discredited Saudi Arabia not only as a strategic partner, but also as a doctrinal model in political Islam. As Graham Fuller has pointed out, with all its flaws, Turkey “represents a modern, rational, institutionalised state still functioning within a democratic order”, while Saudi Arabia reflects a “sterile and arthritic culture” that hardly meets the aspirations of modern times.
Iran, too, is shaped by contemporary political values and institutions, that, however flawed, also provide for checks and balances and changes of government through electoral processes. Qatar, avowedly a Wahhabi state, projects a free and open society, while backing the political model of the Brotherhood. This has earned it the odium of the Saudi crown prince and has had to endure a blockade over the last year. Saudi hostility has brought Turkey, Iran and Qatar together into a solid political affiliation, facilitated by their shared support for activist Islam.
As noted above, Khashoggi, over a professional career of over 35 years, straddled all the three expressions of contemporary political Islam and finally opted for the democratic inclinations and activism of the Brotherhood, which may have caused his death.
It is possible that the Saudi crown prince, in sanctioning the murder of national writer, was encouraged by hubris: the dictionary defines this as the quality of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence, often in combination with arrogance. English literature has described the descent of Satan into hell as resulting from hubris. Today, in the land where the message of Islam was first conveyed to the holy Prophet, the kingdom is being ruled by Lucifer.
Talmiz Ahmad, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, and is Consulting Editor, The Wire.