NIRAJ SRIVASTAVA | 27 OCTOBER, 2018
Difficult days ahead
The saga of Jamal Khashoggi is getting curiouser and curiouser. Saudi Arabia has changed its version of events thrice till date, and the two other players—the US and Turkey—have been manoeuvring to protect their interests and maximise their gains.
First, soon after his disappearance on Oct.2, the Saudis said that Khashoggi had left their Consulate in Istanbul the same afternoon after getting his work done. They denied any knowledge of his whereabouts.
But when reports started appearing in the Turkish and US media that Khashoggi had been killed inside the Consulate soon after entering it around 1 pm on Oct. 2, the matter could no longer be hushed up. Carefully timed reports in the Turkish media alleged that Khashoggi had been murdered in the Consulate by a 15-member Saudi hit-team, that had arrived in Istanbul in two private jets on the same day, and hurriedly departed the same evening, spending less than 24 hours in the city.
The Washington Post, for which Khashoggi used to write op-ed pieces, led the attack on the Saudis, followed by the New York Times and other papers. In particular, fingers were pointed at the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman [or MbS, as he is popularly known], as the chief architect of the crime. Several members of the hit squad were found to be closely linked to him. They belonged to the Royal Guards, Special Forces, intelligence outfits, and the Air Force.
There was consensus that an operation of this magnitude could not have been carried out without the knowledge of MbS, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom. His 82-year old father, King Salman, is believed to suffer from dementia; he has ceded virtually all authority for the day-to-day running of the state to 33-year old MbS, his eldest son.
Faced with growing pressure from the Trump Administration, which dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh on Oct. 16, the Saudis changed their story. They now said [on Oct. 19] that Khashoggi was killed in the Consulate during a “fistfight” which broke out during his interrogation. They tried to distance MbS from the murder, suggesting that it was a rogue operation. To buttress this theory, they dismissed five high ranking security officials and arrested 18 others, including all members of the team that had gone to Istanbul.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubair also told Fox News that Khashoggi’s killing was “a tremendous mistake,” carried out by rogue officers overstepping their authority. He stressed that MbS had no prior knowledge of the incident.
Another variant of this explanation, offered by a Saudi official, was that Khashoggi’s death occurred when one of his interrogators “placed him in a chokehold,” as he resisted abduction. His body was then rolled up in a carpet and handed over to a “local collaborator.” Reports in the Turkish media suggested that the body had been buried in the Belgrad forest outside Istanbul. Turkish investigators have yet to find it.
On Oct. 21, Turkish President Erdogan broke his silence, saying that Turkey was looking for justice and will uncover all the facts. On Oct. 23 he hardened his stand, accusing the Saudis of a “pre-planned, savage” murder of Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 2. He demanded to know who gave the instructions and called for a trial of the accused in Turkey. He said blaming “rogue officers” for the murder, as the Saudis have done, “will not satisfy us,” adding: “Why has the body not been found?”
The US, too, has expressed indignation over Khashoggi’s murder. Both Trump and members of the Congress have called for an investigation and punishment to those responsible. On Oct. 22, Trump spoke on the phone with MbS, who denied having anything to do with Khashoggi’s murder. The State Department announced that it was revoking the US visas of 21 Saudi nationals, who had been identified as being involved in the matter.
On their part, the Saudis announced on Oct. 22 that the government would investigate Khashoggi’s murder, and punish those who were responsible. The statement was designed to convey the message that MbS had nothing to do with the gruesome act, which was a rogue operation. The arrest of 18 Saudi operatives mentioned above had the same objective.
Meanwhile, a member of the Saudi hit squad, Lt. Meshal Saad al Bostani was killed in a mysterious car accident on Oct. 18. His death is being viewed as suspicious by some observers.
Several facets of the Khashoggi murder need to be noted. First, Trump and some pro-Saudi lobbies in the US want to limit the fallout of this incident. For doing so, they appear to be backing the “rogue operation” narrative. The revoking of visas of the 21 Saudis is a step in that direction. This approach is designed to protect MbS and prevent his ouster.
Another signal of US support to MbS is the visit of the US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to Riyadh, during which he met the Crown Prince on Oct. 22. It is significant that the visit was not cancelled, though Mnuchin boycotted the “ Future Investment Initiative” conference [ also dubbed “Desert in Davos” ] which opened on Oct. 23 in Riyadh.
As for the expression of indignation over the matter and the call by some members of the Congress to take strong action against the Kingdom, it is being seen as grandstanding and an attempt to embarrass Trump and reduce support for the Democrats before the forthcoming mid-term Congressional elections.
Second, MbS has some strong allies who don’t want him to go. They include Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and, importantly, Israel. That is a formidable team, which knows how to play the American system. So far, Trump has not directly accused MbS of involvement in the murder, signalling that he would not want him (MbS) to go.
Third, Turkey’s behaviour so far is aimed at undermining the clout of the Saudis and milking them as much as possible, in terms of money and other concessions. The Turks have been spoon-feeding their media at regular intervals with juicy details of the fiasco, to keep the pot boiling. They are least bothered about such issues as human rights. Their own record in this regard is scandalous.
Erdogan’s indignation and demand for accountability from the Saudis are terribly hypocritical, to say the least. Here is a man who is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians, and for nurturing a host of terrorist groups which he infiltrated into Syria. His army has also illegally occupied a significant chunk of oil-rich territory in northern Syria. Erdogan's goons have kidnapped Turks opposed to him in other countries. His shedding of crocodile tears and adopting a holier-than-thou attitude is aimed at extorting investment and other favours from the Saudis, in addition to burnishing his image, which is in tatters.
He carried out a witch-hunt in the aftermath of the attempted coup against him in July 2016, putting into prison tens of thousands of Turks from all walks of life, including journalists, policemen, and professors. It is sickening to hear him talk about human rights and justice. His country is currently perhaps the most isolated in the region, having burnt its bridges both with the US and the EU. No one trusts him, including Russia and Iran.
Fourth, some of the above essentially apply to the US too, whose regime-change operation in Syria has gone wrong. It is now playing the role of a spoiler, by setting up more than a dozen illegal bases in that country to undermine the government of Bashar al Assad. Its hands in Syria are not clean, having supported several terrorist groups in that country. It has no business to act as the conscience-keeper of the world or talk about morality and accountability.
Fifth, much of the noise being made by WaPo, NYT, and others over the Khashoggi murder is because he was “one of them.” It would not be surprising if he was a CIA asset; in fact, some people have alleged that he was. Is his murder, no doubt deplorable, a bigger crime than the US-supported Saudi killing of tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children in Yemen since March 2015? How much attention has the US media and the Congress given to Yemen since then? Or to Israel’s regular and brutal killing of Palestinians? Or to what the US and its allies have done in Libya and Syria, not to speak of Iraq and Afghanistan? Countries that have committed innumerable war crimes have no right to talk about morality or human rights.
The above should not, however, be construed as this writer’s support for MbS, who has taken one disastrous decision after another since he came to power in 2015. These include dislodging two Crown Princes and concentrating all power in his own hands; starting the war in Yemen; kidnapping the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri; arresting hundreds of princes and businessmen and extorting money from them last year; and rupturing relations with Qatar and Canada.
His antics have destroyed the manner in which Saudi Arabia was governed for more than 70 years, by consensus and distribution of power amongst the major branches of the royal family, As a result, the country’s foundations have been severely damaged and it has become internally unstable. Not surprisingly, there has been a flight of capital from the Kingdom and foreign direct investment has plummeted. He has also made innumerable enemies, including hundreds of princes and other influential figures, who would like him to go, by means fair or foul.
MBS's much-publicised initiative of building a 500 billion dollar futuristic city called “Neom”—part of his ambitious “Vision 2030”— is unlikely to materialise because the Kingdom does not have the money for it, and foreign investors are unlikely to invest. Another project announced by him—limited privatisation of Saudi Aramco-- [ which was supposed to raise money for Neom ] has also fallen by the wayside. The Saudi economy is in trouble. That has, however, not stopped MbS from buying a $500 million yacht and a $450 million painting.
As things stand, it appears that Trump is still reluctant to withdraw his support to MbS. King Salman, too, is not prepared to remove MbS or to curb his powers. MbS has friends in high places, the most important of whom is Israel. They have been galvanised into action. Erdogan does not want to be the only one calling for the ouster of MbS. In fact, he had a rather cordial telephonic conversation with him on Oct. 24.
And, most importantly, Khashoggi’s body has not yet been found. Unless that happens—if it happens at all—it would be difficult to directly link MbS to the murder.
It looks like MbS will weather this storm. That may be good for him, but not for his country. We may not have to wait long before MbS commits his next blunder. These are difficult days for Saudi Arabia.
[The writer is a former Ambassador of India who has spent more than ten years in Arab countries, including four in Saudi Arabia]