Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance proves Saudi Arabia is a rogue state
The mystery surrounding the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul is still unresolved a week after his visit to the Saudi consulate, where he wanted to obtain documents for his marriage to a Turkish woman.
Khashoggi's case is not simply about the disappearance - and possible murder - of a critical journalist. It is about the elimination of a defector, a critic from within the dark corridors of the royal court. Hence, this case has assumed greater significance and mystery than any other like it.
Moreover, the incident is not simply about a repressive regime successfully eliminating its critics abroad while launching a pervasive detention campaign inside the country. Many bloodthirsty regimes practice such measures across the globe. In the Arab world death squads under the command of presidents and their thuggish sons have in the past successfully targeted dissidents abroad.
No conclusive evidence
Two narratives have emerged, neither of which provides conclusive evidence as to what happened to the journalist who had - only a year ago - become an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime and in particular the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
The Turkish police reported that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. The Saudis, of course, immediately strongly denied the accusation and insisted that he left the consulate soon after arriving. They even proposed to allow Turkish police access to the premises and later offered to send an investigation team to help find the missing journalist.
We may never find out exactly what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, but his case remains a deeply shocking scandal that will tarnish the crown prince’s reputation for a very long time
We may never find out exactly what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, but his case remains a deeply shocking scandal that will tarnish the crown prince’s reputation for a very long time.
Against all evidence, many Western analysts distinguish between the Arab republics and the Saudi monarchy, considering the latter as deploying more carrots than sticks when it comes to its dissidents. Co-opting dissidents rather than eliminating them is believed to be a wise royal strategy towards dissent.
A unique case
This misguided image has never been true in the past. From the kidnapping of Saudi dissident Naser al-Said in Beirut in 1979 to the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi regime proves to be as ruthless as many dictators around the world. The only difference is that the Saudis get away with murder.
Three reasons make the disappearance of Khashoggi a unique case.
First, Khashoggi is not the usual dissident, a marginalised figure driven by ideology and rebellion against the monarchy. Neither a liberal nor an Islamist, Khashoggi was a smooth, articulate and polite defender of the realm. His reservations on Saudi policies have always been subtle and tolerated.
He criticised religious conservatism and called for less religious control and more personal freedoms. He never imagined a Saudi Arabia without the Al-Saud rulers, always calling for greater tolerance of the diversity of the country and its religious traditions.
Khashoggi was very close to power for several decades. This perhaps meant that he knew too much
He presented himself as a Saudi nationalist seeking more Saudisation of the market, greater employment opportunities for its youth, and less dependence on foreign support.
Khashoggi embraced the latest overdue social reforms of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and praised the alleged gender equality that came with allowing women to drive. Khashoggi always insisted that he is not an opposition figure but a journalist who wants to continue to write.
But this became difficult as he was suspended from writing in various Saudi media. He insisted that this was intolerable and suddenly appeared in Washington and began to write opinion columns at the Washington Post, a privilege that few Saudi dissidents enjoy.
Too close to power
Second, Khashoggi was very close to power for several decades. This perhaps meant that he knew too much. He had access to Prince Turki al-Faisal, ex-director of Saudi Intelligence, when he was his advisor, both in London and Washington, where the prince was briefly the Saudi ambassador.
Khashoggi must have had access to a whole range of information but he diligently kept the secrets and never released any sensitive information to the public, even when he returned to Washington a year ago to declare his dissatisfaction with the recent turn of events under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman.
Previously, he came close to Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who chose him to lead his new Bahrain based Al-Arab television station, a project which lasted for two hours before it was shut down forever under pressure from the Saudi regime.
Khashoggi was a trusted loyalist until Mohammed bin Salman became the sole master of Saudi Arabia in 2015. Things began to go wrong for Khashoggi with the change of the guard in Riyadh. He fell out with the Saudi regime and preferred self-imposed exile in Washington.
But Washington is not the place where the Saudi regime wants its defectors to go. As the capital of lobbyists and pundits, Washington must be kept free of respectable critical opinions such as those of Khashoggi that may influence US politicians and policymakers when they consider their relations with Saudi Arabia.
With US President Donald Trump completely lending his support to the Saudi regime, the latter feared that Khashoggi might puncture the persistent narrative about the glorious new kingdom under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman. Unfortunately, Jamal Khashoggi chose the one capital which the Saudi regime wants to remain totally wrapped in the fog of its propaganda.
Writing in the Washington Post gave Khashoggi an unimaginable audience that few Saudi dissidents are granted so soon after leaving their country. The fame and respectability this bestowed on Khashoggi must have alarmed the Saudi regime.
The Saudi arm
Finally, the disappearance, and possible murder, of Khashoggi in Istanbul is not without great significance. Since the clampdown on Saudi Islamists in November 2017, many chose Istanbul as a first destination in a long journey to safe havens away from the pervasive terror at home.
Istanbul has attracted a wide range of Arab and Gulf Islamists. Muslim Brotherhood activists, Salafis and pan-Islamists found refuge there, albeit now a dangerous one.
Khashoggi's disappearance in the Turkish capital sends a strong message to potential future dissidents. The long arm of the Saudi state can reach them there. Such intimidation is a pre-emptive strike to spread fear among many activists considering to flee to Istanbul.
An overt rift between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over the disappearance and murder of Khashoggi on Turkish soil will be welcomed by many regimes in the region, above all Saudi Arabia’s arch-enemies Iran and Qatar. The Saudis may soon find themselves without the semblance of normal diplomatic relations with Turkey, which have so far survived, despite the latent tension brewing over Turkish support for the Qataris since 2014.
If the Saudi regime has murdered Jamal Khashoggi, it will have to deal with the repercussions, which are likely to be unpleasant. In addition to the fractured image of the regime, Mohammed Bin Salman will be confirmed as the head of a rogue state deploying murderous strategies outside its borders.
Washington may not listen, but other Western governments should take notice of a dramatic turn that is too close for comfort.
- Professor Madawi al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Protestors hold pictures of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 5 October, 2018 (AFP)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.