By Kumar David –
Murder in the Consulate; panic in Riyadh; balls-up in Washington: Saudi Slaying Sinks American ME Policy
Right at the start I told friends in my e-mail group that nothing would come of it; the murder would be swept under the carpet, Saudis would admit to the barest knowledge of Jamal Khashaggi’s (JK) fate, America would launder Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) dirty linen and after a little fluster it would be business as usual. It is turning out to be just that notwithstanding much chest beating in the liberal media. Who cared about assassination of El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Ramiro by the country’s military regime except a few leftists until Pope Francis canonised him a fortnight ago? A dozen journalists are murdered each year all over the world and soon forgotten. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have swept Lasantha’s murder under the carpet much to the relief of Gota, MR and Fony.
But there have been assassinations that changed history; Julius Caesar, Thomas à Becket, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and later Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Benigno Aquino. In comparison JK is a tiny potato and in the long-run the fallout from the murder will be zilch. Or, who knows? The Middle East is volatile and Donald Trump is bizarre, hence interesting times (as the Chinese say) may unfold. The purpose of this column is not to keep you up to date with the news; there are better ways to do that. Where I can be useful is in political assessment. Here are likely medium-term (one to two year) scenarios in order of indicative likelihood.
1. There will be a major reset in Middle East politics, such as transformation of the Saudi royal dictatorship, democratisation of the Gulf region or a decline in America’s power to call the shots in the region. (Likelihood 0.1%).
2. An improvement in the Middle East such as accelerated reforms in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf, reassertion of the legitimacy of the Iran nuclear deal, ending the Saudi-American genocidal Yemen war, better US (Congressional not Trump) policy on Palestine. (Likelihood 0.9% since US-Israeli-Saudi-Middle East relationships are set in stone).
3. Removal of Crown Prince MSB from a position of power, perhaps temporarily, and implicit regime alterations and amendments in Saudi state policy. (Small, say 9% chance).
4. Bugger-all will happen (90% likely). I dare you! Show me in 6 months what has changed.
Erdogan has been brought on board by Washington and Riyadh. The Turkish economy is in a bad way and speculation is that Erdogan drove a hard bargain, maybe relaxation of sanctions and debt amelioration. In his much anticipated 23 October speech he revealed even less than was already known in the public domain. He did say the murder was premeditated but forgot to add that the sun rises in the East. Clearly he has cut a deal for restraint in a recipe cooked in Washington with ingredients shipped from Riyadh. He soiled himself by implicitly going along with a hoax to save MBS and letting the Saudis pick on a few fall guys such as Saad Al-Qahtari, MBS’ right-hand man and enforcer. He avoided confirming or denying the existence of audio and video tapes of the murder and dismemberment of the body.
Done! That is the important part of my piece. Let me now titillate your baser instincts with gruesome details. Turkish police have found damning evidence that JK was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The body was dismembered while KJ was still alive, packed in suitcases and taken ‘home’ in two Saudi jets which had arrived earlier in the day with 15 killers holding diplomatic passports. Investigators found toxic materials in the Consulate; operatives had chemically scrubbed the walls and painted over crucial evidence. For 17 days the Saudis lied brazenly and for 13 refused Turkey permission to search the Consulate and the Consul’s home. Trump barefacedly colluded and changed his story every two or three days. He now says: “It was a plot gone awry”.
On audio recordings of the murder “You can hear his voice and other voices speaking Arabic; you can hear how he was tortured and murdered” many leading media outlets say. Strategically fed leaks from the Turkish prosecutor and police blew apart the lies and forced the Saudis to confess 20 days after the event. It was leaks and the international media pressure that gave Erdogan the leverage to cut a deal with Washington and Riyadh presumably on good terms for Turkey.
The comic part of the show stars Donald Trump. Following a telephone conversation with King Salman he first floated the fiction that the murder was the work of “rogue killers”. He must have recently read comic book renditions of the Arabian Nights tale Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves! Leaks from the Turkish police and prosecutor built irresistible pressure; the Saudis finally capitulated and confessed to killing KJ in the Consulate, but they plead it was not cleared by MBS. “Tell us another one, just like the other one, tell us another one do!” Trump now “awaits Saudis plans” while MBS has been put in charge of restructuring the intelligence services; a fox in charge of the chicken coop, or appointing Buddharakitha to reform Somarama’s pirivena.
KJ’s murder ignited a global uproar and Trump was compelled to dispatch Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh to cook up “A mutually agreeable explanation that won’t implicate the Crown Prince”. In Riyadh, Pompeo smiled and dined with Salman and MBS. Of Saudi-US friendship MBS exclaimed to the media: “We are strong old allies. We face our challenges together – past, present and future”; Pompeo responded “Absolutely”; no surprise there. The story being cooked up is that Saudis admit culpability but it was an unauthorised rendition attempt that went wrong. However, the media dug up photos of four of the operative seen regularly in MBS’ company. The one who oversaw the mission has been identified as Maher Abdulaziz Mutrebas, MBS’ personal bodyguard.
There are three reasons, all simultaneously true, why Trump is bending over to shield the killers. One is that he is a mule and knows no better than to plough the same discredited furrow. The second is that he benefitted to the tune of tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars from real estate deals with the Saudis and owes them a favour; and more important he fears exposure (as with Putin). On the campaign trail he boasted of millions he had earned from Saudi deals. He is the only US President since Nixon who has not disclosed his tax returns.
A third reason is the importance of the Middle East to the US. Trump has antagonised America’s best diplomats that he is now high and dry for good advice. Washington is in an incredible mess and Trump is out of his depth. If you sympathise with US foreign policy you may grant that US-Saudi relations are of the highest priority and should not be endangered. But that is a state-to-state matter, not a Trump family (DJ and son-in-law Jared Kushner) to MBS cosying-up matter. Trump who puts narcissism at the centre of every involvement cannot separate policy from personal profit and has muddled the two again.
JK though a recent critic of the Saudi regime was never a dissident. He was a business operator and previously a hanger-on of the regime. He had been an adviser to MSB and praised his reforms. He never called for regime change, only for gradual reform. He did criticise some aspects of policy such as the brutal war in Yemen. Hence it is not clear why it was essential to murder, dismember and take him back ‘home’; it must be the sheer arrogance of the Saudi royals.
The murder prompted outrage and businesses which were lining up to cash in on Saudi billions to be spent by MBS on ambitious investment programmes have been caught with their pants down. ‘Davos in the Desert’ a $900 billion investment bonanza has just started but the IMF’s Christine Lagarde and the World Bank have pulled out in embarrassment. The biggest names in global business, the crème de la crème, the 1% of the 1%, were to be there. Now they are bolting like sheep fleeing the slaughterhouse. The rush is headed by CEOs or Presidents of Black-Stone, Black-Rock, Virgin’s Richard Branson, Standard Chartered, JP Morgan, HSBC, Credit Suisse, Ford, Uber and the like. Of course, the carrion eaters will all be back after the dust settles and repression returns to the familiar old-fashioned style much loved by big business.
Trump doggedly stayed the course insisting that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin attend until Congress forced him into a boycott. The governments of France, UK, Germany and Netherlands are also keeping away. Trump has spoken loudly of the $110 billion armaments sale to the Saudi that he negotiated during his much-feted trip. Leaving aside the morality of flooding the region with more military hardware, the Saudi regime cannot cancel the purchase since it needs killing gear for its own survival. Nor can it switch the order to Russia or China without jeopardising performance of existing hardware which is deeply plugged into American technology.
Trump dispatched CIA Director Gina Haspel to Ankara to meet Erdogan on the morning before the latter’s sell-out speech and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to Riyadh, probably to finalise the payoff. If anyone thought ethics of any degree prevails at the apex of international politics Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Donald John Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan just gave them an ice cold shower.