THE KHASHOGGI AFFAIR: A murder in the Orient that could throw Saudi international standing into the dustbin of history
Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in Istanbul, almost certainly carried out by operatives from Saudi Arabia, inside the Saudi consulate, has naturally roiled Saudi-Turkish relations. But it has also enmeshed the US president in this as a result of his reluctance, yet again, to criticise autocrats – in this case the Saudi king and crown prince. It has also disrupted, perhaps fatally, the kingdom’s plan for a massive investment conference planned for next week, designed to showcase the crown prince’s plans to push the kingdom into a new economic future.
Right about now, the Saudi Arabian government, especially its royal family, and most particularly the king and the crown prince both, have found themselves in multiple, interlocking crises. This perfect diplomatic and governmental storm was initially set in motion by someone actioning a plan – “Yes, go ahead, that’s a great idea, just don’t tell me the details” – to rid the royal family and country of one of its most influential critics, Jamal Khashoggi, a man who was based outside the country.
This plan, however, came out very differently than the scenario initially thought through by whoever had authorised it, put it into motion, or had actually carried it out. But that is just the beginning of the mess.
Jamal Khashoggi is/was a significant critical voice about Saudi Arabia’s politics and its royal family, but was based in the US. A US permanent resident, he had become a periodic columnist with The Washington Post, as well as a sometime participant on international television talk shows, especially those beamed into the Arab world.
On Thursday, The Washington Post published his final column which called strongly for much more press freedom and transparency as a key and crucial part of the democratisation of the Middle East. His final words to the world:
“The Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events. More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices. We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.”
According to reports, everyone seems to agree he was in Istanbul, Turkey, prior to his marriage to his Turkish fiancé, and he had entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in order to process some documents related to that upcoming marriage. (Some reports have said he was lured into the consulate there, despite his realising there was the possibility of foul play directed against him.)
Surveillance CCTV cameras have recorded his arrival at the consulate and his entry into the building, and these images have been shown repeatedly on broadcast news programmes around the world. Crucially, although the Saudis have, up until recently, insisted Khashoggi had left the building after completing his business there, no surveillance footage demonstrating that rather basic fact has been released to prove that assertion.
In the two weeks since Khashoggi disappeared into the building, there have been persistent reports of recordings of bluetooth broadcasts from Khashoggi’s smartwatch of a struggle between Khashoggi and assailants and his subsequent killing, picked up by police or intelligence sources near the building. Other stories say he was harshly interrogated and things just got out of hand; while yet others say he was immediately sedated and, well, things got out of hand.
One version of the story seeping out has been that – after growing disbelief over his reported invisible exit from the consulate – he was supposedly going to be interrogated for a while and then secretly, very quietly smuggled out of Istanbul and back to Saudi Arabia for who knows what fate. But in the meantime, as the first iteration of the Saudi explanation was evaporating, a cleaning crew – straight out of a spy thriller of a novel – rolled into the consulate, complete with paint and brushes.
The most logical reading of that turn of events was that there was a room where some awful things had happened and the evidence of a deadly struggle had taken place which needed to be rendered invisible, null, void, never happened. (Well, of course, as anybody who has watched even a single episode of CSI New York or CSI Las Vegas knows, just a little spray of Luminol and the waving of a handy UV light at any suspicious spots shows the evidence of the crime, even after the malefactors have scrubbed and scrubbed until their hands are raw. On television, at least.)
Meanwhile, the Saudis had offered to let Turkish inspectors visit the building, but the visit only happened after the clean-up crew had finished their, well, clean-up of things. Eventually, a Turkish crime scene investigation team did enter the consulate building, spending hours inside, and ultimately removing a door and various soil samples – and, reportedly, having found some suspicious DNA samples as well. Turkish inspectors eventually also took a long, slow look through the residence of the Saudi consul-general, but only after he had suddenly departed for home.
So far at least, according to the New York Times:
“Intelligence agencies have not yet been able to collect direct evidence of the prince’s involvement, American and European officials said. They also have not been able to conclude whether Prince Mohammed directly ordered the killing of Mr Khashoggi, or whether his intention was to have Mr Khashoggi captured and taken back to Saudi Arabia, according to one official.
“But intelligence agencies have growing circumstantial evidence of the prince’s involvement — including the presence of members of his security detail and intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a possible plan to detain Mr Khashoggi, according to American officials. Officials have also said the prince’s complete control over the security services makes it highly unlikely that an operation would have been undertaken without his knowledge.”
While all this was transpiring, US President Donald Trump had spent his time embracing the Saudis, denouncing a rush to judgement (a la Justice Kavanaugh and so many other of his own indiscretions), pushing forward a very ripe counternarrative of some all-purpose rogue elements carrying out the despicable act. Doing this, he tried to absolve the Saudis and deflect some of the blame onto the Turks, even though he was simultaneously crowing about gaining the release of a US citizen pastor who had been held by the Turks as party to the almost-coup a few years back.
That Trump narrative is a pretty hard argument to make, given the unlikelihood of a secret “rogue element” flying into Istanbul in multiple small planes, complete with a bone saw or two; entering the Turkish consulate; carrying out a vicious murder; and then vanishing into thin air, along with the body and any evidence of the crime. For his part, Trump, meanwhile, has over the past several days doubled down on this theory of the crime, even if the logic of it might well have given Hercule Poirot a fit or two.
The ostensible rationale for such a position seems to be that Donald Trump is deeply and even monomaniacally fixated on a so-called $110-billion arms deal with the Saudis and his fear of spooking (or irritating) the Saudis sufficiently that they do a sudden volte face and then elect to purchase their entire weapons arsenal from the Russians, the Chinese, or, perhaps, the British and the French, costing the US economy zillions of dollars and triggering mass unemployment. He noticeably has been boasting of that sales agreement, even though, so far at least, only around a tenth of that proffered total consists of actual new sales agreements, and half of that is really attributable to the previous administration.
It is much harder for the Saudis to switch suppliers than Trump thinks, and congressional pressure – Democrats and Republicans both – is mounting on the US to do something to indicate its horror over the incident. The Saudi military is almost totally reliant on the American defence manufacturing base, and given the sophistication of that weaponry, and the planned interoperability and interconnections of such complex systems, it is almost impossible to make an abrupt turn to new suppliers – thereby sacrificing the long tail of spare parts, munitions, training and so forth for the current stuff, rendering that vast investment very expensive scrap.
In fact, the speculation of some joined-at-the-hipness between Trump and the Saudis has been fuelled by repeated Trump boasts – in the lead-up to his victory in 2016 – that he has personally received millions of dollars from sales of apartments and co-ops in his buildings “and lots of other stuff” to Saudis. And his new downtown Washington hotel has rented hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of rooms to Saudi delegations since his election. The Trump argument that he has no investments in Saudi Arabia, and so is therefore free of any taint of moral hazard, rings hollow, because the real argument about all of this is their potential hooks into him from this cash flow in his direction.
In fact, the Saudis have been investing in the US political and academic worlds for years. (It helps when you have a huge wad of cash to work with as petroleum lifted in the kingdom is now being sold for six or seven times the actual cost of its production.) Saudi money has helped underwrite Middle East study programmes at universities and think tanks, and has funded a continuing stream of lobbyists (duly, legally registered to be sure) who can make their representations and campaign contributions through carefully constructed bodies.
Part of this positive public presence has similarly fed the narrative that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, nicknamed MBS, the current king’s son and effectively Grand Vizier over the realm, is a clever, dogged reformer, keen to drag the conservative kingdom, whether it likes it or not, kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Well-publicised efforts such as opening movie houses to both sexes and allowing women to drive have burnished his image, even as other, darker events such as extrajudicially rounding up a whole congregation of rich Saudis and sequestering them in a fancy hotel until they coughed up (presumably ill-gotten) mega bucks and promised never to steal again, or provoking a diplomatic incident with Canada over a tweet have betrayed a different side of the prince’s temperament, authoritarian, impulse, hair-triggered.
Along the way, for his part, he has carefully nurtured a relationship with his rough chronological counterpart – Jared Kushner – in order to knit close ties with the Trump White House, despite the president’s professed abhorrence of formal treaties where the other party gets away with murder.
Perhaps it is better to say that the Saudi and White House princes jointly saw opportunities in building that relationship for mutual gain. On Kushner’s part, he was apparently responsible for making certain the first presidential visit abroad was to Saudi Arabia, complete with lots of military pomp, the multistorey-high image of the president on a hotel wall, that weird, shining, glowing crystal orb, and that equally weird sword dance, along with all the usual red carpet fluffery.
All of this had been designed to bind the two nations together strategically and to ensure Saudi oil continued to flow unhindered, despite any other ructions in the Middle East. The grander, longer-term strategy was to support and build up the Saudis as an effective counterweight to Iran inasmuch as the Trump administration was determined to isolate and restrain the latter nation’s oil sales through political pressure or sanctions, or both.
In the background, too, the Kushner grand strategy seemed to include the hope that he would manage to get the Saudis to become increasingly tolerant of the Israelis, and vice versa, and that they would work in tandem in a tacit alliance because of their mutual hatred of Iran and that nation’s participation in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. (Perhaps, naively, Kushner had even imagined he could, simply by virtue of his logic and personality, convince the Saudis – and especially the crown prince – to pressure the Palestinians to settle things with the Israelis, especially if money could be found to help lock the deal, although that element of the grand plan might well have been scuppered by the decision and the elaborate ceremony of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, a city whose final status under international law remains undefined, instead of being in Tel Aviv where it has been all these years, not bothering too many besides the evangelical vote in the US and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political constituency.)
As things have proceeded, the Saudis and Iranians both became increasingly deeply engaged in the Yemeni civil war, with the Saudis on the pressed government’s side and with the Iranians backing the Houthi rebels. As these things do, the war has increasingly become a savage catastrophe meted upon the civilian population, as starvation and epidemics become the norm, and as the Saudis’ reliance upon hi-tech weaponry supplied from the US inflicts the kinds of casualties that make headlines and maim busloads of children.
One other aspect of the crown prince’s efforts to gain the respect and admiration of the world, and love of the global financial community, has now taken a severe knock in response to this diplomatic snarl over “Where in the World is Jamal Khashoggi?” – and that, of course, is the grand, international development and investment conference, informally dubbed “Davos in the Desert”.
This massive enterprise has long been scheduled to take place and it is to start next week, on 23 October. It had been heralded as a breakthrough event that would bring a huge cast of fund managers, the relevant masters of the universe, the world’s print and electronic media leaders (with some of their most well-known figures to serve as session chairs), and a clutch of national and international financial officials, all together, to see just how attractive the prince’s plans were. They would thereupon sign up to underwrite vast investments in the future as Saudi Arabia becomes a modern state no longer solely dependent on oil and natural gas for its Croesusian wealth.
But, with the Khashoggi matter unresolved in any meaningful way beyond obfuscation, smokescreens, and the impunities of fatally dealing with one’s enemies inside a diplomatic mission, the international media has now largely begged off; the masters of the universe are suddenly finding that their diaries are overscheduled; and government officials are just as suddenly finding yet other excuses to keep them away – all save for US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
On Thursday, the US administration finally decided, in keeping with many other international financial, media, and government A-listers, not to attend the Saudis’ “Davos in the Desert” investment conference, apparently signalling some sort of disapproval over the way the Saudis have yet to come up with a coherent story about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Mnuchin still seems determined to attend, unless Donald Trump suddenly has a flash of understanding and sees the hand of the prince and Saudi government, as opposed to those mysterious rogue elements, behind Khashoggi’s agonies, disappearance, and presumed death.
International media, no doubt egged on by the Turks who clearly feel embarrassed about this event, as well as looking for a way to push back on the Saudis as the wannabe leaders of the entire Middle East, have been helpful in finding the offending plane manifests and identifying many of the travellers as Saudi security operatives, including at least one, the forensic specialist Salah al Tabiqi, a senior figure unlikely to be in this mission without authorisation from high up the food chain.
According to Turkish sources, it was being reported that the Saudi consul general, Mohammed al-Otaibi, had been recorded telling the killers to do their deed outside: “You’re going to get me in trouble.”
In response, he was told, “Shut up if you want to live when you return to [Saudi] Arabia.”
Al-Otaibi has since returned to his homeland.
In the midst of all this, Donald Trump has spoken with the king and crown prince and been told that his nation had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance (just as he had been told by Vladimir Putin that he had had nothing to do with election hacking and other interference in 2016).
Thereupon, the US president sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh to try to work something out. Trump got a full briefing from the now returned Pompeo, but the US appears not to have received copies of the recordings from which the Turks have been leaking tantalising and horrific details to media outlets. So far, at least, the nasty mess remains, save for the blood on the floor and walls that had been so helpfully cleaned up before the investigation began. DM
Late on Thursday SA time, Trump for the first admitted that Jamal Khashoggi indeed appears to be dead, as per Washington Post. It remains to be seen what will that mean for the whole affair, and especially for the future of US/Saudi relations.