18 October 2018
The Khashoggi Disappearance
The USA, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
By Neil Tidmarsh
A mechanic servicing an F-16 fighter jet last week at the Belgian airforce’s Florennes base accidentally triggered the plane’s guns. The bursts of automatic fire which he unwittingly unleashed destroyed another F-16 (price-tag $18 million), damaged yet another and left two mechanics in need of treatment for hearing loss.
It seems that the “mechanics” who serviced their bosses’ requirements in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul last week have triggered a similarly widespread and unpredictable trail of damage, this time to the alliances, policies and diplomacy of the Western world.
President Trump must be furious. One of his prime foreign policy aims and achievements has been to resuscitate the USA’s traditional relationship with Saudi Arabia after their alliance had been dumped at the morgue door by Obama’s attempts to bring Iran (Saudi’s deadly enemy) in from the cold. The Trump administration has worked hard to repair its relationship with Riyadh and together they’ve succeeded in building a coalition of Middle Eastern countries (including the other Gulf States, Egypt and even Israel) as a bulwark against Iranian aggression and as a pressure group trying to force the Palestinians to accept a compromise peace. The White House’s efforts at rapprochement have also won billions of dollars of business for the USA.
And now all this is in jeopardy as the world (including the Senate – both Democrats and Republicans – and the vice-president) is calling on the President to punish Saudi Arabia with sanctions or worse, and is even asking, once again, what on earth a free and democratic country like the USA is doing in bed with a country like Saudi Arabia in the first place.
Whatever happened to Jamal Khashoggi in that consulate, his disappearance is threatening to cause real and serious damage to Riyadh as well as to Washington. Economic and diplomatic sanctions by the USA and Europe would hit Saudi Arabia hard – socially, politically and economically – just when its people and king need the world’s support in those three areas.
The Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 consists of admirable but risky reforms, social (women’s rights, cinema, dancing, singing, etc) and economic (diversification away from oil, infrastructure projects including whole new cities). He has engaged his country in the desperate civil war in neighbouring Yemen. He has backed anti-Assad forces in the equally desperate civil war in Syria. And direct confrontation with Saudi’s major rival in the region, Iran, looms ever closer.
In all these ventures, Riyadh needs the arms, finance, goodwill and know-how of the West. But now all four are in danger of slipping away. Sanctions are threatened. Financiers are boycotting next month’s “Davos in the desert”. Eyes which gazed approvingly at social reform are no longer willing to be blind to the repression of opposition which continues at the same time. Voices which have been condemning the sale of arms for use in Yemen now have a new eloquence.
The backlash could even threaten the Crown Prince’s position. Leaked reports from Turkey claim that he personally must have sanctioned and perhaps even ordered the operation in Istanbul. His enemies won’t hesitate to blame him for the trail of damage it causes. He isn’t without enemies in his own country: other members of the royal family resent him for being promoted ahead of them and for launching a ruthless anti-corruption campaign against them and other rich and powerful figures. Conservative elements in society resent his social reforms. Liberal elements resent the continuing repression of opposition voices.
His position had already been weakened by a number of Saudi foreign policy failures. The war in Yemen is not going well; although it’s easy to understand Saudi involvement (Yemen is a neighbouring country, after all, and the hostile Houthi rebels are now within missile distance of Riyadh), there are question marks about Saudi tactics and strategy. The Saudi-backed rebels in Syria have been defeated. A number of efforts to bend regional players (Qatar, the prime minister of Lebanon, the president of Palestine, ex-president Saleh of Yemen) to Riyadh’s will have apparently come to nothing.
It would be a disaster if the Crown Prince’s authority didn’t survive this episode. No one else would continue with his reforms; power would pass to his more conservative rivals; the tension between reaction and reform would escalate to dangerous levels. Instability in the kingdom would spread instability throughout the region.
Given the jeopardy, it’s difficult to understand why Riyadh would authorise such a risky business as attacking a journalist on foreign soil. Was it just another tactical blunder like the attempted seduction of Saleh of Yemen? Did they think it would pass unnoticed? Did they think that the rapprochement with President Trump gave them a licence to do as they wished? Did they think that the world, mindful of Saudi Arabia’s oil, purchasing power and strategic importance, would ‘swallow the toad’ and look the other way?
And – perhaps the biggest mystery in the whole affair – why did they want Khashoggi out of the way in the first place? Just because of some mildly critical articles in The Washington Post? Riyadh isn’t famous for tolerating press criticism, but all the same… Khashoggi was a journalist with a wide range of contacts and connections. He knew Saudi politics and intelligence (Prince Turki bin Faisal, once head of Saudi intelligence, was his former boss and mentor) and Islamic militants (he had been “an early associate of Osama bin Laden” and had “articulated a mild sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood” – The Times). Was what he knew – what he hadn’t yet written – even more dangerous than what he had written?
What happens now depends largely on President Erdogan of Turkey. The Turkish authorities appear to have a clear picture of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. Turkey is outraged by this violation of its soil. But the way Erdogan might choose to play this hand is not entirely predictable.
He has recently clashed with the USA over conflict with the Kurds in Syria and with Saudi Arabia over territorial ambitions in the region, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood and the leadership of the Sunni world. This event has apparently given him the chance to force a split between these two allies, play the one off against the other, and come out ahead of both.
But the cautious and restrained way he has played his cards so far (as yet no official enquiry has been launched, no direct accusations have been made, the only source of information has been “unofficial” leakages, and the way towards some sort of face-saving excuse like “it was an interrogation which went wrong” remains open) suggests that he might be following the safer and more responsible policy of seeking US and Saudi goodwill and rewards by helping them out of the hole rather than burying them in it.