Reading the Khashoggi Affair
The disappearance of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi since his visit to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, on 2 October, and the suspicions of his murder by the Saudi authorities represent one of the most important political crises in the contemporary history of the monarchy in Riyadh. Beyond the morbidity of the alleged sequence – namely that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate from where his body, cut in pieces, was disposed of by a team of Saudi agents who had flown in and out of Istanbul on a special flight – and besides the international diplomatic implications of the ongoing investigation as well as the preposterous scenario of an unlikely accidental death due to a fistfight scenario presented by the Saudi officials 18 days after the event (an about-face in contradiction with their original statement that Khashoggi had left the consulate), three larger questions arise. These concern the illusion of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud’s reforms, the unceasingly renewed cecity of Western political leaders, as regards Middle Eastern autocrats, and the continuous and problematic degradation of international norms.
The first question is the least surprising, with the Mohammad Bin Salman phenomenon likely to come to pass as a flash in the pan. Uncritically embraced with indecent swiftness by the Western media as “MBS”, the 33-year-old son of King Salman Bin Abdelaziz had quickly risen to power since 2014. In June 2017, he unceremoniously pushed aside his cousin, Mohamed Bin Nayef, from the royal succession line – thereby putting an unprecedented dent in the traditionally consensual ways of the House of Saud since the 1930s. The Khashoggi affair might well bring an end to the MBS era – and that would be an extraordinary turn of events in light of the way Bin Salman’s era had been branded. Already, regardless of the eventual outcome, his international public relations project has come to a dramatic halt.
"Militarised throughout the 2000s, the terms of exchange between nations have become increasingly criminalised during the 2010s. The Khashoggi affair is a tragic illustration that this is now done offhandedly and almost openly."
In point of fact, and despite a gigantic marketing campaign, the Saudi crown prince had, during his young political career, gone from one failure to another. The decision he had taken, in March 2015 as Minister of Defence, to launch a major war in Yemen has engulfed Saudi Arabia in what can already be assessed as its own “Vietnam”; a conflict which has spawned one of the largest contemporary humanitarian crises and a military campaign littered with war crimes. Upon taking over as prime minister, Bin Salman subsequently plunged the Gulf in its deepest crisis when, overnight in June 2017, he led, an embargo on Qatar, accusing his neighbour and former ally of promoting terrorism. That crisis, which nearly turned military, importantly divided the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), long cohesive since its creation. Crown prince Bin Salman then ordered the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh the following November, whom he forced to record a video message announcing his resignation and kept under house arrest before releasing him two weeks later. All these decisions were taken impulsively; undermined Saudi Arabia’s image of a stable, if authoritarian, country and, most problematically for Bin Salman’s project, constituted repeated political failures.
Secondarily, the Khashoggi episode reveals the hypocrisy, which in the West, presided over the diplomatic and journalistic love affair with ‘MBS’, widely presented in the style of a young-modernising-reformist-king-at-last-transforming-the-kingdom. Echoing the announcement of reforms supposedly introduced to liberalise the country and diversify its economy, self-interested international partners hurriedly turned a blind eye on the limited aspect of these projects and of Bin Salman’s so-called Vision 2030 itself (heavily geared towards entertainment with plans for large-scale movie theatres, amusement parks, music concert halls). More importantly, these partners conveniently ignored the continued, and indeed increased, political repression that accompanied these heralded economic changes.
By November 2017, the then de facto strong man of the country, Bin Salman, jailed some forty political and economic figures of the kingdom under corruption accusations. That purge was read by many as a belated attempt to clean house and rid the country of business practices often conducted in opacity. It was immediately followed by the arrest of some twenty women’s rights militants, when, six weeks earlier, it had been announced that the ban on women driving cars would be lifted. In the same period, repression of human rights activists and scholars persisted without tainting the lily-white image of a reformist crown prince. Last spring, Americans could find in their newsstands a Vanity Fair-like glossy magazine entitled The New Kingdom with “MBS” on its cover next to the headlines: “Our Closest Middle East Ally Destroying Terrorism” and “Improving Lives of His People and Hopes for Peace”. Today, President Donald Trump’s grandstanding and threats of “severe punishment” thus ring hollow, particularly in light of the cozy relationship between White House adviser and Trump son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the Saudi crown prince. Most problematically, as had been the case with Egyptian President Abdelfattah al Sisi and his rebooting of the Hosni Mubarak regime thought gone after the Arab Spring, Middle Eastern autocrats emerge once again as the privileged partners in many Western governments.
The extraordinary feeling of impunity which the Saudi authorities would have demonstrated – if their responsibility in the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi were to be ascertained – confirms, finally, the continuing fall of the norms of civilised international affairs. Militarised throughout the 2000s, the terms of exchange between nations have become during this decade criminalised, offhandedly and almost openly. For if, in truth, Mohammad Bin Salman could have personally ordered the killing of a journalist (someone who was a member of the Saudi elite and whose opposition to the regime was relatively mild), it is because, in this global Zeitgeist, he had witnessed the US president call journalists the “enemy” and, during his campaign, cheer acts of violence, or yet again seen Russian operatives allegedly conducting, in the British Wiltshire suburbs, an operation to poison a former Russian agent and his daughter.
A form of ethical corruption partaking of the problem now denounced, such loss of exemplarity on the part of governments is still at play in the current crisis, and it is from civil society, the corporate world and the media that the most significant reactions came, not from states or political leaders. Viacom, Virgin, CNN, CNBC and Uber cancelled their participation to the “Davos in the Desert” business meeting in Riyadh before government representatives and IMF officials did. Ultimately, the tepidity and guarded nature of these reactions speaks of the weakening of international norms, a matter the Khashoggi affair is a tragic illustration of.
Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou
Professor of International History