Photo: EPA. Turkish investigators enter Saudi consulate.
As is well known, The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian citizen residing in the U.S., disappeared and was killed inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey. At first, the Saudis denied any role in Khashoggi’s death. Soon thereafter, as video footage of the consulate appeared and rumors spread of the brutal way in which Khashoggi was killed, the Saudis faced a large blowback. But once the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, the Saudis then shifted gears, scrambling to fashion an explanation for something that now everyone knew had happened. At first, they secretly admitted that Khashoggi was killed in an interrogation gone wrong. And then, on October 19th, the Saudis openly disclosed that a “fistfight” in the Saudi consulate led to Khashoggi’s death.
This incident has received considerable global attention, with several consequential storylines. For instance, what can/should states do to protect journalists increasingly under attack from global despots? Should the US hold the Saudis to account for Khashoggi’s muder? And should it reassess its relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)? What does all of this mean for Mohammad bin Salman's (MBS) standing inside Saudi Arabia and his supposed platform of reform? These are but a small sample of the questions being asked nowadays by journalists, academics, analysts, and policymakers.
Below is a short conversation I recently had with my colleague Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman about this very event. We discuss KSA’s motives for engaging in such a brutal murder, the reactions to it, as well as broader geopolitical fallout that the Saudis might face going forward.
Brad Nelson: What do you make of Jamal Khashoggi's murder?
Yohanes Sulaiman: This is a society where open dissent is only possible with sufficient political backing form the ruling house or other key players. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been consolidating his rule, and the last thing he wants is open dissent, especially in the US media, that threatens his image abroad.
But why such clumsiness? Well, there are three reasons that came to my mind. First, the usual organizational fiascos. The Saudis have been silencing their critics without problems before with the usual standard operating procedures, and this time they "forgot" that it happened in Turkish soil, with a very hostile government. Or they are just incompetent.
A second possibility is sabotage within the bureaucracy. Maybe there are rogue agents who want to throw a wrench in Salman's reforms, and this is one of the best way to ruin Saudi Arabia’s image abroad -- an explanation, which, honestly, I don't find compelling.
Third, given that the murder was done openly, it was likely a signal to other dissenters, that the Saudis will come after them regardless of international condemnation.
What do you think?
BN: The whole thing is so bizarre. The details of Khashoggi’s murder are out of a horror movie. We now know he was stalked, tortured, murdered, and then brutally dismembered. Mike Pompeo, dispatched by Trump to KSA to figure out what the heck happened, is caught on video laughing and glad-handing with MBS. Back in Washington, Trump is utterly confused, saying that severe consequences will be imposed on the KSA if it's revealed that the Saudis killed Khashoggi while at the same time opening admitting he has no intention of breaking America's alliance with the KSA. All while this is happening, The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman is frantically running around trying to explain to everyone his misplaced faith in MBS (see here and here and here), triggering, in turn, criticism from academics like Dan Drezner and Stephen Walt. And meantime, the US media has gone into overdrive hyping Khashoggi's death, because he's one of their own.
Some perspective is desperately needed here. The issue really isn't Trump, MBS, or even the killing of Khashoggi. The incident in Turkey is a product of the US giving the Saudis for years a blank check to do what it wants inside its borders and around the world, no matter how flagrant. As long as the Saudis buy American arms, keep the oil pumps flowing, and work to contain Iran, the US happily turns a blind eye to all the nonsense done by the Saudi royals. Engage in reckless killing in Yemen? Fine, go ahead. In fact, the Americans will aid and support you. Spread extremism globally? Whatever. Repress their citizens? Okay, it’s your business, KSA. And if the US doesn't provide any resistance to Saudi misdeeds, who will stand up to the KSA? Qatar? Iran? Canada? Good luck with that. The truth is that US administration after administration has been extraordinarily reluctant to hold the Saudis to account, and as a result, they are all complicit in their crimes and abuses.
Frankly, if the US wasn't willing to downgrade, if not outright sever, ties to the Saudis after 9/11—when, according to the so-called "28 pages of the 9/11 commission report, we know that Saudi officials were in contact with at least two of the 9/11 hijackers, and the collusion between the Saudis and al-Qaeda could have been more extensive than that—it strains credulity to think that the death of a single journalist will do anything significant to US-KSA relations. My guess is this will all blow over in the next weeks and months ahead, and the status quo will hold.
YS: I agree with most of what you wrote, that the Saudis will just do whatever they want because they believe that they can turn on and off the spigot at will. However, I really am quite surprised with such brazenness. As Stalin supposedly remarked, “the death of one man is a tragedy. Death of a million is a statistic.” Didn't the Saudis realize that killing Khashoggi would cause such an uproar and would of course be manipulated by Erdogan, who has an ax to grind against both Trump and the Saudis? Why weren’t the Saudis more subtle?
Here’s a question for you: What is Turkey's aims and objectives to publicize the murder? Beyond the expected five minutes of rage, doesn’t Ankara know that the US will mend its fences with the KSA?
BN: I suspect Turkey sees this moment as way to gain some leverage over the KSA, after years of sour relations due to a fallout over the Muslim Brotherhood, the Qatar crisis, and so on. Seems like Erdogan could've gone much further in pinning blame on the Saudis, so he's holding his punch for now. Moreover, Turkey has decided to treat the killing as a diplomatic affair rather than a criminal case, which would've publicly revealed a lot more by this point. However, as you point out, Turkey has leaked information about Khashoggi's death, which is probably an effort to signal to the Saudis that Turkey has the upper hand here. Turkey is likely trying to gain a favor that it can cash in on a rainy day. Perhaps on Syria. There could also be some spite here, in response to rocky Turkish-KSA ties since the Arab Spring in 2011. The drip, drip, drip of information has been damaging to the Saudis.
Of course, there's the US factor to consider as well. Turkey has been upset at the US for years for supporting and backing the Kurds in Syria. Perhaps the Turks see the Khashoggi murder as a potential avenue to get the US to back off the Kurds. There's already some backroom dealing among the Turks and the US, as Pompeo visited there this week. Maybe a deal is in the works to withhold information embarrassing to the White House in exchange for some concessions on the Kurdish issue. Or perhaps Turkey is simply looking for an opportunity to fix relations with the US, and sees this case as opportunity to do so.