At this point we can only assume that the Turkish version of events regarding the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi is true. As always, I’m open to being proved wrong, and it’s certainly incumbent upon Ankara to release the audio evidence of which they claim to be in possession (though this, should it come out, will naturally be dismissed by the Saudis as fabricated or doctored), but the list of plausible alternative scenarios currently stands at zero.
Khashoggi went into the Saudi consulate and was never seen again. If he had merely been kidnapped and jailed, we’d have heard from him by now. He would have appeared on Saudi state television and delivered some kind of scripted statement like Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri did last November. The House of Saud appears to prefer this time of year, autumn, for abductions and assassinations.
If Khashoggi was, in fact, whacked out by a Saudi hit squad—complete with torture and Goodfellas-style dismemberment—as the Turks maintain he was, then Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is even crazier than we thought. Since being named heir apparent by his senile father, King Salman, the crown prince has been on a mission to establish himself as the region’s chief thug. This is no small task, but MbS, as he’s blithely referred to, seems up to the challenge.
As Patrick Cockburn recently wrote, the crown prince’s list of failures, in so short a span of time, is impressive. His escalation of the war in Yemen has achieved nothing unless you count mass murder and mass famine as achievements. The Houthis are holding fast, and the country has been all but obliterated. Perhaps, though, the Saudis view Yemen’s destruction favorably. Like the US invasion of Vietnam, Saudi Arabia’s overarching goal in Yemen is to demonstrate to the region what happens when populations revolt against their oppressors. You want to upend the status quo and realize a degree of independence and self-government, you’d better be prepared to be pulverized. That’s the warning being issued by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
No sooner had bin Salman been appointed crown prince (June 2017) than the Saudi-led diplomatic and economic war on Qatar commenced. The express purpose of the surprise gambit was to punish Doha for its support for terrorism—pretty rich coming from the epicenter of Wahhabism, that diabolic interpretation of Islam upon which al-Qaeda and its numerous clones base their murderous ideologies. Of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers, fifteen were Saudi nationals; none were Qatari.
Which is not to say that Qatar is innocent of the charge. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with the UAE, supported the same terrorist elements of the Syrian opposition. Hillary Clinton, in one of her $250,000 speeches to Goldman Sachs, confirmed this in 2013, asserting that Damascus and its allies were “being taken on by indigenous rebels but increasingly a collection of jihadists who are funded by the Saudis, funded by the Emiratis, funded by [Qatar] …” (Emphasis mine.) In a 2014 email sent to John Podesta, Clinton wrote: “we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” Knowing this, Hillary publicly argued in favor of regime change in Syria. But I’m sick to death of writing about Hillary Clinton.
To call the support-for-terrorism pretext flimsy is generous. Preposterous is the better word. I can’t imagine that even casual observers were taken in by it, Donald Trump being a possible exception (he stupidly spoke in favor of the Saudi blockade, apparently unaware that his country maintains a critical military base in Qatar). Riyadh’s motivation was obvious: Qatar was being disciplined for its pragmatic relationship with Iran, with whom it shares the biggest natural gas field in the world. Also for Al Jazeera’s—Qatar’s state-funded media outlet— unflattering coverage of Saudi policies. What the crown prince was hoping to accomplish here is anyone’s guess. Did he think Doha would surrender its own strategic interests, renounce its cooperation with Tehran and meekly submit to his capricious will? Needless to say that didn’t happen. Qatar responded by reinstating full diplomatic relations with Iran, which, along with Turkey, increased exports to Qatar, diminishing the effect of the embargo.
A few months later, right around the time the crown prince launched his Stalinist purge of the royal family, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was detained on a visit to Saudi Arabia. Soon after, clearly reading from a text that had been prepared for him, he announced his resignation on Saudi state TV. In his statement he hit out at Hezbollah and Iran; he also claimed that an attempt on his life—presumably from Hezbollah or Iran—was imminent (Lebanese intelligence contested this). The charade was absolutely transparent. “The words [Hariri] read out,” Robert Fisk wrote at the time, “are entirely in line with the speeches of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and with the insane president of the United States who speaks of Iran with the same anger, as does the American defense secretary.”
Predictably, the bizarre incident had the effect of uniting the Lebanese people in support of their prime minister and, more importantly, their national sovereignty. Lebanese President Michel Aoun rejected Hariri’s “resignation” and demanded that he return to Lebanon, which he did a couple weeks later. On December 5, one month and one day after resigning, Hariri reassumed the office of prime minister. The crown prince’s stratagem had backfired in spectacular fashion. Meanwhile, Hariri, who strikes me as a bit of a wimp, refuses to speak about what exactly took place during that trip to Saudi Arabia, and is now reportedly taking the kingdom’s side in the Khashoggi affair.
From said affair, we can take away a few things. First, I’m happy to see that the US and its allies have suddenly embraced due process, calling as they are for a thorough, independent investigation into the event so as to establish beyond a doubt what actually took place, at which point they can respond accordingly. I trust they will now apply the same evidentiary standards to, say, the next chemical weapons incident in Syria, or the next botched assassination of an ex-spy in Europe. Moreover, it’s good to know where we in the West draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior as regards official allies. Shelling hospitals and mosques and schools and school buses and weddings and funerals is one thing—unfortunate casualties of war, worthy of a few hollow words of regret. Killing a Washington Post columnist, however, will not be brooked. Hence, the mass boycott of the upcoming business conference in Riyadh, and Trump’s talk of “severe punishment.” In the world of American politics, one Khashoggi is worth one million Yemeni lives.
Mohammed bin Salman ought to have understood this. That he didn’t tells us much about the man set to rule Saudi Arabia for the next four or five decades. Such hubris, such vanity, and he’s not even king yet! If I had his ear, I would advise the crown prince to exercise extreme caution moving forward. There’s hell to pay for stepping on Uncle Sam’s toes: once he sours on you, your days are numbered. Our old friend and ally Saddam Hussein can, or could, attest to that. I would also hand him a copy of King Lear as a cautionary tale, as the state of affairs in Saudi Arabia is a sparkling case of life imitating art.
Written by Michael Howard