The Saudi Killing of Jamal Khashoggi
What it reminds us about the Saudi rulers.
Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known Saudi journalist, went to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to fill out some paperwork pertaining to his marriage — he was in the process of divorcing his Saudi wife so that he might then marry his Turkish fiancé. He entered the building at 1:14 p..m., and has not been seen since. His fiancé had been waiting outside the consulate for what was supposed to have been a short visit; when he failed to appear, the police were summoned. The Saudis at the consulate claimed not to know what had happened to Khashoggi. From Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman insisted that Khashoggi left soon after visiting the consulate. King Salman assured President Trump that his government had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance. Now the Saudis have decided to tell their latest version of the truth. They claim that Khashoggi died during an “interrogation gone wrong.”
On that same day, October 2, fifteen Saudis arrived in Istanbul in the morning, and departed, on two different flights, the same evening. Or at least that’s the story. There are videotapes of Saudis arriving at the airport, but to complicate matters, it seems that some of those videotapes are five years old. Meanwhile, the Turks claim to have proof that Khashoggi was killed inside the Embassy. They say they have tapes on which the alleged audio evidence is particularly strong, according to officials.
“You can hear his voice and the voices of men speaking Arabic,” a source told the Washington Post. “You can hear how he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered.” CCTV cameras provide videotapes of a black van that left the Saudi Consulate that afternoon and went to the home of the Saudi Consul General. The Turks initially claimed the body was dismembered with a bone saw; among the Saudis who arrived that day was an autopsy expert well-versed in such dismemberment. The world media is of course titillated by the story: what did they then do with the pieces? Burn them, so that nothing was left but ashes and bone? Would the ashes have been flushed down the toilet? Would the pieces of bone have been cut up into ever smaller pieces that, divvied up among the 15 Saudis, could be disposed of discreetly around Istanbul or even at the airport, or packed in diplomatic pouches and flown to Saudi Arabia? Or did they bury the body in the garden of the Consul General? No one yet knows, but the “Pulp Fiction” and “Goodfellas” aspect of all this is riveting.
But let’s get back to what this killing demonstrates. It demonstrates that Saudi Arabia has only contempt for the outside world, and no intention of changing its brutal ways no matter what others think. All sorts of Western big shots have now pulled out of the “Davos in the Desert” three-day economic summit to be held in Saudi Arabia in early November. Among them are Richard Branson, the CEO’s of Viacom and Uber, the heads of JP Morgan, Blackstone, BlackRock, the owner of the Los Angeles Times, the creator of the Android Mobile Device, the creator of Crispr, and many others. This will have little effect on the Saudis. If Western companies want to engage in virtue-signaling, and lose billions in investments, both in and from Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince can live with that. Besides, there is always China, ready to sell weapons to the Saudis (as Trump has noted), and to make, and receive, Saudi investments.
The killing may, however, have a salutary effect on the American government’s view of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were largely protected during the investigation of the 9⁄11 attacks; 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, but through it all, Saudi Arabia remained our “friend” and ally. They sold us their oil at the market price, doing us no favors, but because Saudi Arabia was the “swing” producer, and when, purely for reasons of economic self-interest, the Saudis raised or lowered production so as to lower or raise the price of oil, we were always naively grateful. The Saudis have a stake not just in current oil revenues, but in maximizing the value of the billions of barrels they have in the ground. They are not doing us favors. They calculate their ideal price for oil, at any time, based on the likely effect on consumers, who may switch to other sources of energy, and on energy producers, who if the price is high enough may search for new oil supplies or extract oil already found, using innovative techniques. The Saudis cannot forget fracking, and what that did to oil prices.
When the Saudis allowed American troops to be based on on Saudi soil, this was presented as doing us a favor, though it was the Americans who were protecting the Saudis, not the other way round.
The alliance with Saudi Arabia continues until today. When the Saudis bomb Yemeni civilians indiscriminately, our government says nothing. After all, the Saudis are waging a proxy war against Iran, and that is reason enough for the Americans to keep quiet. But now we have a moment of high drama, conflicting tales, and Murder Most Foul. Had the Saudis managed to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia, they could have promptly jailed him for 10, 20, 50 years, or even life, and there would have been only a feeble bleat of protest, but nothing like what has happened after his murder in Istanbul.
It’s the cinematic aspect of the whole thing: the tape of Khashoggi walking serenely into the consulate, unaware of any danger, with his fiancé waiting outside. He is never seen again. We see those grainy shots of 15 Saudis who arrive at the airport, on two different private planes, that same day, and who have apparently been recorded — the Turks say they have the tapes — interrogating, torturing, and killing him. Those same 15 Saudis leave that evening at two different times, on two different planes. The whole thing is straight out of Hollywood.
Crown Prince Mohammed (MbS) is often thought of as a proponent of major change. Yes, women can now drive in Saudi Arabia, thanks to the Crown Prince. Yes, the cinemas, closed in 1979, have reopened, thanks to the Crown Prince. Yes, the forward-looking Crown Prince has made big plans for building three new Saudi cities from scratch: one an Economic City for businesses, especially high-tech companies and start-ups, another for Entertainment, and a third intended to be a Muslim-friendly Tourist City, so that the Saudis and other rich Arabs can spend more of their money at home. With the help of a small army of Washington lobbyists, on whom Saudi Arabia spent $27 million last year, and on media consultants from all over, the Crown Prince has been presented as the young reformer of a sclerotic system, and many in the West have accepted this carefully-cultivated image.
The killing of Jamal Khashoggi reminds us that the Saudi rulers, and the Crown Prince, are well-versed in the use of violence. They are determined to keep themselves in power, and to keep the colossal wealth to which they help themselves. The 15,000 Saudi royals are collectively worth $1.7 trillion; they are not about to let go of any of it. Jamal Khashoggi, though not a royal, began life as well-connected as any commoner in Saudi Arabia could be. His grandfather was the personal physician to King Abdelaziz Al Saud. His uncle was Adnan Khashoggi, who through his connections in the Saudi government made $4 billion dollars as an arms dealer. His cousin was Dodi Fayed, Princess Diana’s last boyfriend, and the son of the billionaire businessman Mohamed Fayed.
Khashoggi has been a leading journalist since the 1970s. He’s been the chief editor of Al Madina (one of the oldest papers in the kingdom), worked as a columnist for Al-Arabiya, served as a media advisor to Prince Turki al Faisal when he was the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and has been a frequent guest both on Saudi television and on such international channels as MBC, BBC, Al Jazeera, and Dubai TV. He became the editor-in-chief of Al Watan twice, and on the second occasion, he quickly got into hot water for publishing a column by the poet Ibrahim al-Almaee challenging the basic Salafi premises. This led to Khashoggi’s seemingly forced resignation. On May 17, 2010, Al Watan announced that Khashoggi resigned as editor-in-chief “to focus on his personal projects.” However, it is thought that he was forced to resign due to official displeasure with articles published in the paper that were critical of the Kingdom’s harsh Islamic rules; the one by al-Almaee was the last straw.
In December 2016, the Independent, citing a report from Middle East Eye, said Khashoggi had been banned by Saudi Arabian authorities from publishing or appearing on television “for criticising US President-elect Donald Trump.” That led Khashoggi to move permanently to the United States.
Khashoggi began writing for the Washington Post in September 2017, and still was contributing pieces up to the time of his death. In the Post, he criticized the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s dispute with Lebanon, Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic dispute with Canada, and the Kingdom’s crackdown on dissent and the media. But he also supported some of Crown Prince’s reforms, such as allowing women to drive. He condemned the arrest of Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, and several other women’s rights advocates involved in the women-to-drive movement and the anti male-guardianship campaign. He opposed the Saudi-Israel alliance.
By 2017, Khashoggi, who had two million Twitter followers, was the best known pundit in the Arab world. He has been hailed in the West as a progressive, but that is a case of misunderstanding his aims. Khashoggi believed in spreading Islamic rule, the same goal as that of any Jihadi, but he wanted to achieve that goal through political Islam. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and remained true to it, even praising it in a Washington Post column. Some described him as the de facto leader of the Saudi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Crown Prince, on the other hand, believes that the Muslim Brotherhood is a danger to the Kingdom, that is, to his family’s continued rule.
Khashoggi flourished in Washington during the last year. He became a regular guest on the major TV news networks in Britain and the United States, as well as a columnist for the Washington Post. In 2018 Khashoggi established a new political party, in the West, called Democracy for the Arab World Now, which — had he lived — could have become a major political threat to Crown Prince Mohammed.
During this past year, there have been many Saudi emissaries — “businessmen” — who met with Khashoggi in Washington, to promise him he would be safe if he returned to the Kingdom; the Crown Prince, too, offered to make him an “advisor” if only he would return. He turned them all down, telling a friend that he would have to have been crazy to believe their assurances.
Khashoggi was not a secularist, not a Saudi Ataturk, as some in the West seem to think. He believed in Islam and wanted it to spread, but to do so through “democratic” means — the “political Islam” of, for example, Mohamed Morsi in Egypt or Rachid Ghannouchi in Tunisia. He disliked the Saudi family’s censorship of the media; he believed that criticism might weaken the hold of the Al-Saud, but strengthen the sinews of the state and of the Muslim Brotherhood. He knew how corrupt the Saudi system was, and knew, too, how unforgiving the Crown Prince could be. Yet he still maintained his faith that there were some limits to Saudi ruthlessness, which is why, on October 2, he went to the consulate in Istanbul. We see — as he suddenly saw, just before the murderers started in on him — that he was wrong.