By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
The gruesome murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi has dominated world news since October 03.
Khashoggi had been a close advisor to the Saudi Royal family for many years. However, he had spoken out against the increasingly repressive policies of Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Sultan (MbS) and son of King Salman, the absolute monarch who ascended to the throne in 2015. 60 years old Khashoggi, also a journalist, self-exiled himself in September 2017 fearing arrest and settled in the US before moving to Turkey. He was a columnist for the Washington Post.
A group of 15 Saudi officials, presumably a hit-squat, had arrived in Istanbul in two private jets in the early hours of October 02 and departed late in the night on the same day.
Khashoggi visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 02 at 1.14 pm to collect documents pre-arranged during a previous visit on September 28. His Turkish fiancée waiting for him outside the consulate raised the alarm after four hours.
The initial Saudi response on October 03 ‘He left the consulate alive’ kept changing. October 08 ‘Reports of death false and baseless.’ October 15 ‘Possibility of rouge killers.’ October 20 “A brawl and a fist fight’. On October 21, ‘Murder was a mistake.’ 25 October “pre-meditated murder.” Meanwhile, multiple reports of a gruesome murder inside the consulate began circulating due to official and unofficial leaks from the Turkish side.
Investigations are hindered due to diplomatic complications. The consulate building is sovereign territory of Saudi Arabia, the Turkish government has no jurisdiction inside the premises. However, it cannot remain silent given the arrival and departure of an alleged hit-squad through the Istanbul airport on the day Khashoggi visited the consulate. Besides, the yet unknown whereabouts of the body, supposedly given to a local collaborator for disposal on Turkish soil makes a Turkish involvement unavoidable.
Conclusive findings of a joint Saudi-Turkish investigation team are still awaited.
The Saudi authorities have announced the arrest of 18 officials and senior advisors.
The episode has had implications for Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the US besides several western European countries with substantial Saudi investments. They are also major suppliers of military hardware. They have been reluctant to engage with Saudi Arabia in the past on issues of Human Rights, Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Expression and other so-called shared values. However, due public disgust and outrage including from those in the international media, western governments are now demanding an explanation from Saudi Arabia.
Intolerance of internal dissent in the kingdom has turned more severe since 2015. Permission for women to drive vehicles introduced by the reformer Crown Prince followed with the arrest of several female political activists. The high-profile arrest, imprisonment, and torture of hundreds of royals and businessmen in a luxury hotel and confiscation of billions of dollars of their wealth on the grounds of illegally acquired wealth, without due process, is a case in point.
The balanced and moderate foreign policy of former kings Fahd (1982/2005) and Abdullah (2005/2015) has been replaced with a more aggressive policy bent on propagating Saudi Wahhabism. The 82 years old monarch is reportedly suffering from early stages of dementia. MbS is believed to the de facto ruler with direct control of the armed forces, foreign policy, defense, and economic affairs.
Western European champions of democratic values and human rights have made little or no effort to deal with Saudi Arabia’s brazen conduct. The three-year-old war in Yemen together with eight other nations from the Middle East and Africa led by Saudi Arabia has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians including scores of children. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon complained of Saudi pressure to remove its name from a register of children’s rights violators as “one of the most painful and difficult decisions” he has had to make as UNSG. The Saudi led embargo against Qatar increased regional tensions and is causing untold hardships on Qatar. The sudden resignation by Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri of Lebanon while visiting Riyadh and his detention for several weeks is believed to have been orchestrated by MbS. General comments by German, Swedish and Canadian Foreign Ministers of the kingdom’s human rights record resulted in severe repercussions for German, Swedish and Canadian companies operating in Saudi Arabia besides the threat of freezing Saudi investments in those countries.
There are three key players involved in the Khashoggi conundrum, namely Saudi Crown Prince MbS, US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan each with his own agenda.
MbS, once referred to as “He is our guy. We put our guy on top” and thus far remained insulated from overseas criticism has been on the defensive and has remained mostly quiet other than his telephone conversations with President Trump and one phone call to the Turkish President.
President Trump’s reluctance to take a hard line against America’s principal ally in the Middle East and Mbs due to trade deals “worth USD 110 billion” has changed his tone. He told the Wall Street Journal, “MbS runs the country” possibly implying the murder could not have taken place without his knowledge. His move to pass to Congress, the decision on freezing arms sales and sanctions could give breathing space as the US Congress (House of Reps. and Senate) is in recess, with mid-term elections due on November 6 and will not meet till January 2019.
President Erdoğan sees several benefits in exploiting the issue. Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia has been less than cordial. A political Islamist, Erdoğan’s vision for the Middle East is at variance from that of the Crown Prince. He has been at the losing end in the struggle for power and regional influence. Khashoggi’s murder is an opportunity to weaken MbS’ regional and global standing and establish Turkey as a regional Islamic power base while weakening Saudi Arabia’s position in the Sunni Muslim world. He also suspects a Saudi hand in the failed coup d’état in July 2016 besides in the recent currency crisis in Turkey. However, despite his promise to divulge the “naked truth” on the Khashoggi issue last Tuesday during an address in the Turkish parliament, while calling it a “Political Murder,” he failed to release the much-publicized leaks of audio and video recordings of the gruesome murder. The drip drip release of investigation details indicates he is mindful of the need to avoid burning all his bridges with Saudi Arabia.
The Khashoggi murder epitomizes Saudi crudity and stupidity. Political assassinations have been carried out for decades by American CIA, Soviet KGB, Russian FSB, British MI6, French DGSE, and many other counterintelligence agencies. However, regime dissidents have never been murdered inside their own diplomatic missions on foreign soil.
Germany has announced the suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The US and UK have canceled visas of 21 Saudis including those arrested. France has promised suspension of arms sales if the murder is linked to the Riyadh government. Other than statements of condemnation, little has been done by the international community. Not a single nation has withdrawn ambassadors from Riyadh.
Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Bloomberg, “it is very difficult” to freeze the Saudi arms deal as it would cost Canada Canadian dollars 1 billion. Spain’s parliament voted on Tuesday against blocking arms sales to Saudi Arabia. According to British Daily Mail, 38 British Parliamentarians enjoyed freebees of junkets, gifts and other benefits from Saudi Arabia over five years. The cost since 2015 amounts to GBP 208,000 with GBP 106,418 thereof in 2018.
An earlier Saudi statement stated it would retaliate against any sanctions imposed over Khashoggi’s disappearance. It further said, “The kingdom plays an effective and vital role in the world economy.” Translated, it means, it could shut off the 10.5 mil barrels of oil it produces daily. No doubt, it could be argued, the US could march in and force open oil fields as proposed during the oil embargo in 1973. However, with sanctions against Iran in November around the corner shutting off most of the nearly 4 million barrels it produces daily would result in absolute chaos worldwide. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia plays too prominent a role in current US administration’s overall Middle East policy and Iran policy for such a course of action.
Despite the storm over Khashoggi’s murder and the boycott by many leading industry captains, Saudi Arabia signed up deals worth USD 56 billion during the just concluded ‘Devos in the Desert’ investment conference. The President of a US investment company addressing the forum stated, “Decades of investments and business cannot be unmade by one incident. Of course, there will be consequences, but we then need to move on.”
Logic dictates Jamal Khashoggi will run its course and be forgotten. Saudi Arabia will have its knuckles rapped by the US. Turkey will win some concessions. And then, it will be business as usual.