The Saudis have spent incredible and tireless efforts on disassociating Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud (nicknamed MBS) from journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder on October 2, 2018. But claims by some media – directed by Turkey, Qatar, and The Washington Post (for whom Khashoggi was a contributor) – suggest otherwise. The Washington Post cited unnamed U.S. sources who claimed the murder was carried out under the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and perpetrated by his closest assistants and advisers, after which MBS was reportedly briefed by the task team of the results of their grim task.
An official Central Intelligence Agency assessment is scheduled to be presented to the White House on November 20, 2018.
The Saudi Arabian regime’s stuttering and inadequate response to these accusations led to an international outcry. First of all, the Saudis denied the murder and tried to cover it up with a series of actions meant to make-believe that Khashoggi had left the consulate where he was assassinated. Saudi officials also refused the Turkish authorities access to the consulate and the consul’s residence. Then the Saudis presented a version of the story that Khashoggi suffered a heart attack following a scuffle with the Saudi team that came to arrest him and bring him to Saudi Arabia. Eventually, the Saudi regime admitted that the murder was carried out by a rogue Saudi team, led by a Saudi intelligence spymaster working on his own agenda, and with no connection whatsoever with MBS. Finally, the arrest of 11 members of the team was announced, while 10 others are still under investigation. Five members of the team are, as of November 2018, facing the death penalty.
The Saudi Response Came Too Late
The Saudi reaction to the murder came too late, was too little, and fell far short of responding to the media campaign and manipulation led by the Turks, the Qataris (relentless enemies of Saudi Arabia), and The Washington Post, where Khashoggi was employed as a journalist. As a result, Saudi Arabia today finds itself under pressure for more transparency, and its regime has become the focus of scrutiny for both its former allies and its rivals and enemies.
When trying to understand the Saudi response, it is obvious that the regime was too slow in its reactions, did not grasp the changing mood in world opinion against it, and did not offer adequate answers.
Suddenly, MBS is no longer seen as a reformist or a visionary, but rather as a cruel politician who profited from the weakness of his rivals in a purge carried out in November 2017, when many of those arrested were forced to disburse hundreds of millions of dollars after being incarcerated in the most beautiful prison in the world – the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. MBS was also behind the kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, also in November 2017, who was beaten on his way from the airport in Saudi Arabia to his confinement by the same intelligence officer who took part in the Istanbul operation. Worse, MBS, the architect of the Saudi war against the Houthis in Yemen, pro-Iranian militias who tried to take over Yemen in 2015, was taken by surprise by the shift in world opinion. The war was now considered to be unjust, and the Saudis were accused of creating the biggest humanitarian crisis ever by starving to death millions of Yemenite children!
Saudi Arabia’s biggest mistake was to believe that the U.S. reaction would be limited and minor, mostly to please the media. Indeed, the Saudis were first led to believe this would be so following Donald Trump’s statements that the United States should continue its economic and military relations with Saudi Arabia because of huge job-creating contracts signed between the two countries.
The Saudis ignored the changing mood of President Donald Trump, who felt the Saudis had misinformed him (or even openly lied to him) about the Khashoggi assassination. Under the pressure of the media and the newly elected Congress, Trump chose to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia for the first time in the history of the two countries. First of all, the United States decided to stop providing air tankers to refuel Saudi fighter aircraft in midflight during their missions in the war in Yemen. Then, it imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials, restricting their access to the U.S. financial system, and freezing their assets. Additionally, a bipartisan group of six U.S. senators has even proposed new sanctions against Saudi Arabia, including halting arms sales, sanctioning individuals who hamper humanitarian aid to Yemen, imposing “mandatory sanctions” on any person involved in Khashoggi’s murder, and asking for a report on human rights in Saudi Arabia.
The Enemies of Saudi Arabia Step in
The world reaction to the killing of Khashoggi is an expression of outrage over the beastly behavior of the Saudi regime. However, it is also clear that Saudi Arabia’s rivals have found a weakness in its defenses that allows them to undermine Saudi Arabia’s international and regional position, weaken its regime, and maybe even push for a change in the government that would best serve their interests. There is no doubt that Turkey, Qatar, Iran and its satellite Hizbullah, together with the Syrian regime are the big winners of the Khashoggi faux-pas.
- Turkey has taken advantage of the murder by “merchandizing” the information gathered by its intelligence services inside and outside the Saudi consulate, exposing it to the United States and other western countries, and leaking parts of it to the Turkish press. Turkey’s main achievement has been mending its fences with the Trump administration after relations went sour because of Turkey’s arrest of American Pastor Andrew Brunson in 2016 who was only released two years later. Turkey may even try to convince the U.S. administration to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish arch-opponent to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Turkey, where he would be tried for his alleged involvement in a failed coup d’etat in 2016 against Erdogan.
Qatar is savoring its revenge for MBS’ arrogant and bellicose attitude to Qatar which he has displayed since his ascent to power in 2017, when he tried to initiate a ground incursion against the Emirates and then promised to dig a ditch that would cut off Qatar’s remaining land link to the Arabian Peninsula. Qatar had to sign a defense pact with Turkey, which dispatched a 4,000-strong military force as a protective garrison against any potential Saudi attack.
In the course of 2017, Qatar tripled its expenditures for Washington lobbying firms in what the press called “Qatar’s charm offensive” to offset the Saudi presence in the U.S. capital.
- Iran, disputing Saudi Arabia’s role as a regional power, is fully entrenched in the Yemeni war, supplying the Houthis with precision-guided ground-to-ground missiles and other military equipment. Saudi Arabia, which had been raising the anti-Iranian flag and signaling to the world about Iran’s destructive and subversive role in the region, finally found a sympathetic ear with the Trump administration after years of the Obama doctrine, which favored an Iran-U.S. rapprochement at the expense of moderate Arab former allies. With the Khashoggi murder, the changing attitude of the U.S. administration toward Saudi Arabia, and mounting criticism against the Saudi war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia may be compelled to put an end to this war. Ending the conflict in this fashion will appear as a Saudi defeat and a colossal Iranian victory!
- Lebanon and Syria, where Saudi Arabia was deeply involved in the financing of Muslim extremist organizations, will definitely feel the weakening of Saudi Arabia in tandem with the erosion of the political position of MBS, the champion of an active Saudi policy in the Syrian and Lebanese conflict.
Oddly enough, the only countries that have expressed some solidarity with Saudi Arabia are its Arab allies – the Gulf States, Egypt, and Sudan – and unexpectedly, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who publicly stressed the importance of Saudi “stability.” A change in the leadership of the Saudi royal house could be detrimental for those allied with MBS.
Time for Change in the Saudi Royal Family?
With the unexpected crisis unfolding around the Khashoggi murder, there is no doubt that the House of Saud is under attack. Calls from within the royal family are being voiced, demanding change in the regime. These calls are mainly focused on the need to neutralize MBS’s excessive powers and limit his influence on military and defense issues. Some even seek his replacement by King Salman’s younger brother, septuagenarian Ahmad Bin Abd el Aziz, an open critic of MBS, who was called back from London, where he had been staying for some time, and arrived in Riyadh in late October 2018.
At this time, MBS has ignored the criticisms against him and continued to behave on a “business as usual” basis. However it is crystal clear that with all the mounting accusations of U.S. intelligence sources, Saudi Arabia can only comply with the demands for a reshuffle in the balance of power within the royal family, whose main scapegoat could be MBS. Saudi Arabia cannot afford to be under U.S. sanctions. President Trump voiced his assessment by saying that without U.S. support, the House of Saud would not last two weeks in power!
On the other hand, bearing in mind MBS’ ambitious character, one cannot underestimate the possibility of him waging a coup to replace his ailing father (maybe even with his consent). In such a case, an era of instability may well prevail in the region, and Saudi Arabia could face a very stormy outcome, left with only a handful of local allies.