Every few weeks, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and its de facto ruler, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) perpetrate some new outrage, whether kidnapping a foreign head of state, jailing women’s and human rights rights advocates within their own borders, or slaughtering children and other innocents in Yemen. These actions rarely provoke any outcry, as many of the most influential opinion columnists in the United States, the U.K. and beyond have been busily writing glowing assessments of the ‘reformer’ MbS for a little over a year now.
All this seems to have changed just after 1 p.m. local time on October 2 when Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and dropped off the face of the earth.
Soon after, the Turkish government, which has been embroiled in a dispute with Saudi Arabia over its blockade of their ally Qatar, released footage allegedly taken before the journalist’s disappearance. It showed a group of 15 Saudi nationals arriving in the country, including a forensic specialist who was said to have brought along a bone saw in his luggage.
Apparently, the men were booked at a hotel for 4 days but left before 24 hours had passed and were seen entering the consulate before Khashoggi left his fiance outside and entered the building to meet an unexpected and likely gruesome, fate.
In a bit of circumstantial evidence directly implicating the Saudi Crown Prince, The New York Times reported on October 12 that four of the men believed to have taken part in the abduction or, more likely, murder, of Jamal Khashoggi had served as part of MbS’ personal security detail.
The coverage of the story so far has been remarkable, with mainstream cable news outlets giving it more coverage in one week than they have given to the Saudi war in Yemen launched by MbS over 2 years. The last week also offered two examples of politicians normally beholden to the oil rich absolute monarchy, which has only gained more influence in Washington since the election of Donald Trump, seeming to turn on the country or, more specifically, its 33 year old Crown Prince.
Marco Rubio, who has consistently sided with Saudi Arabia in terms of arms deals and the war in Yemen, somewhat abruptly developed a moral compass in the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, “If we do not take action, including potentially arms sales, as a result of this, if it turns out to be what they say it is, then we are not going to be able to with a straight face or any credibility confront Putin or Assad or Maduro in Venezuela or frankly confront the Chinese and their human rights violations,” Rubio said on Sunday in an interview with CBS’s Face the Nation.
Not to be outdone by the junior Senator from Florida, Senator Lindsey Graham, fresh from his despicable grand-standing at the Kavanaugh hearing, had harsh words for a country he has long staunchly supported, with particular venom directed at MbS, “This guy has got to go,” he said on “Fox and Friends”, “Saudi Arabia, if you’re listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose. But MBS has tainted your country and tainted yourself.”
While the new found bravery of these politicians should be applauded while it lasts, it remains a case of too little, too late for the many victims of the Saudi despotism in Yemen and elsewhere.
It’s interesting that Graham seems to think that the 30 million ordinary Saudis, living under the rule of an often capricious absolute monarchy, have any choice in who leads them. His words might have been meant as a call for a palace coup or a plea to the Kingdom’s ailing king, believed to be suffering from dementia, to remove his favorite son.
The reaction of authorities in the Kingdom to the escalating outrage over Khashoggi has been typical: issue threats. It’s a tactic that has worked in the past, most recently in a flare up over the treatment of two peaceful women’s rights activists brought up by Canada’s foreign minister on social media in August of this year and back tracked on by Prime Minister Trudeau shortly after, when it appeared an arms deal worth billions might be cancelled.
In a recent editorial featured on the web-site of the Saudi government sponsored Al Arabiya TV, Turki Aldakhil, the network’s General Manager, outlined some potential responses to any sanctions that might be imposed on the Kingdom by the U.S. or its allies.
At the top of the list? Ending the use of the petro-dollar and perhaps a change to a petro yuan, something that likely sent shivers up the collective spines of those American oligarchs who have profited so handsomely off of a partnership that’s been one of the main drivers of U.S. economic power for decades.
President Trump actually did Americans a favor by explaining how much Saudi Arabia spends on American weapons (grossly exaggerating the number of course) and later compared a murder in a diplomatic compound to the Kavanaugh hearings in the Senate (which was not a trial but rather a job interview), saying that it is unfair that Saudi Arabia is presumed guilty before an investigation has taken place.
While the position that the United States and its allies take will be important, especially if they impose sanctions, the case is perhaps more interesting for what it says about the region’s growing rivalries.
A prince’s hubris?
As someone who rarely reads the Washington Post’s editorial page, Khashoggi was not someone this writer was very familiar with. While he’s been widely portrayed as a heroic figure on the right side of history in the wake of his disappearance, the reporter (and often censor when he edited the Saudi paper Al Watan) has a history that’s much murkier than it’s been presented since he entered the consulate on October 2nd.
As reported by As`ad AbuKhalil on Consortium News, “Khashoggi distinguished himself with an eagerness to please and an uncanny ability to adjust his views to those of the prevailing government. In the era of anti-Communism and the promotion of fanatical jihad in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Khashoggi was a true believer. He fought with Osama bin Laden and promoted the cause of the Mujahideen.”
AbuKhalil also claims that Khashoggi had shown sympathy in his more recent writings in Arabic for the Muslim Brotherhood, long used as a scapegoat by Saudi royalty for the terrorism of much more radical groups often sponsored by elements within the KSA, if not necessarily the government itself.
The Brotherhood is, at the same time, closely connected to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP PARTY in Turkey, which shares its ideology, and the tiny but oil rich kingdom of Qatar, which has tried to build its influence through its support of the group’s reactionary Islamism over the last few years, whether in elections in places like Egypt or through insurgencies in places like Libya and Syria where these self-proclaimed ‘moderate’ Islamists have often been in alliances with more extreme Salafist elements.
After 14 months of tensions, Saudi Arabia’s most recently stated plan for Qatar was to build a canal on the KSA’s border with the tiny Kingdom, effectively turning the peninsula it’s currently located on into an island and building a nuclear waste dump on their side of the canal.
Early on during the dispute, which put the United State’s largest military base in the region at risk, Turkey’s Erdogan came to Qatar’s defense, moving more assets to a military base it has in the country.
While it’s quite rich that Turkey’s president is now presenting himself as a defender of press freedom, it’s important to note that there may be a longer term interest at play for Erdogan.
As some commentators have noted, Saudi Arabia has long portrayed itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world but the quick ascension and many mistakes of MbS may have put this in dispute and given Turkey a chance to increase its influence and promote its brand of ‘moderate’ Islamism throughout the Sunni Muslim world.
For its part, the Islamic Republic of Iran has remained wisely silent throughout this whole affair despite the constant saber rattling emanating from the KSA in recent years, much of it seemingly driven by MbS.
The decline of American influence?
The United States, already weathering a number of disputes with its NATO ally Turkey, may have less influence over events in the region than it’s leaders would like.
While the Trump administration has been quite effective at seating right-wing judges domestically, they have not been very good at appointing ambassadors, even to key rivals and allies. Currently, the United States has no ambassador in either Saudi Arabia or Turkey and Secretary of State Pompeo rushed to Riyadh but came back with nothing but vague assurances from the country’s leadership.
One of the reasons for Trump’s reluctance to criticize Saudi Arabia may be the ties that he and members of his family have to the country and its close ally the UAE. It is now believed that when various important Saudis were rounded up and held in Riyadh’s luxury Ritz Carlton hotel in late 2017, the names of those thought to be opposed to MBS’ expanding power had been given to him by Jared Kushner, who had read them in the President’s daily intelligence briefing. Unrelated to this so far as we know, Kushner lost his security clearance shortly thereafter.
Interestingly, Qatar, which had previously backed out of a deal to finance Kushner’s disastrous purchase of 666 5th Avenue in New York City before the Saudi led blockade of the country, suddenly struck a deal at the end of May to do even more financially than the previous deal would have entailed.
So far, this doesn’t seem to have made a difference in terms of ending Qatar’s dispute with its larger neighbor.
While we should be glad that mainstream politicians and corporate media have finally noticed that Saudi Arabia is one of the worst governments in the world, we shouldn’t forget that this simple fact was ignored until someone many of them knew allegedly became a victim of the KSA. Countless women, Shia dissidents and others have been forced into exile, imprisoned and executed for demanding the rights guaranteed to all under international law, not just under the de facto rule of MbS, but for decades before he took power.
For myself, the boisterous, smiling faces of the boys on a bus in Yemen hit by a Saudi airstrike in August have been seared into my memory. There is something wrong with countries like the United States, Canada and other NATO democracies that value one man with well-placed friends more than children blown up during a school field trip. In the end, as so often in the strange, gladiator like politics that have become increasingly normal in this young century, scoring political points seems to have more value for Western media and political classes than seeking justice for the victims of reckless, self-important men like Mohammad bin Salman.