Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 27, 2018
Khashoggi’s murder: Only one of many recent failures of Saudi Kingdom

In one of the most riveting and macabre global stories recently, Saudi dissident and The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder (admitted finally, through proxy though) has captured quite some spotlight in the Arab-West relations.

As mysterious as it was admittedly macabre, the inept handling of the aftermath by Saudi courtiers leaves one ironically entertained, though not surprised. Not surprised, as this is clearly one of the many failures of the kingdom in recent times where not one Saudi courtier is “thinking it through”. The same kingdom, less than 5 decades ago, had brilliantly brought the West to its knees through an oil embargo, thereby asserting its importance in the global order. It had also smartly hyped up the Iranian bogeyman to Western powers while ensuring one-upmanship in the West Asia. For all its warts Saudi could never be faulted for strategic brilliance in diplomacy. Until a few years ago.

Starting off with outright denial, to accidental death to a rogue operation, the fumbling Saudis are clearly testing the limits of diplomatic swing-space with the West.

While Canada and Germany have started off with specific embargoes, the US is yet to use its whip. And while Western media is unforgiving of this incident and is already final nailing the Crown Prince’s political coffin, the sequence of events that lie ahead might be entirely different.

In the tightly controlled Arab Gulf states, there is simply no such thing as "a rogue operation," as Saudi statements have described it. While these glaring inconsistencies in the official explanations have only deepened suspicions of a state-sponsored cover-up, the only responses that matter for the Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), are domestic (Saudi citizenry) and that of the US (In this case, only Trump). Pressure mediums apart from these two factors would not hold enough gravitas.

Conspiracy theories on ground in Saudi are mixed and largely condone the Crown Prince. Apart from the standard, “Iran and Turkey did it in a joint operation”, to other outlandish theories of Jamal Khashoggi being the first cousin (which he was) of Dodi Fayed (Princess Diana’s partner) and the Western powers eliminating him to protect secrets of the English Crown, the blindsiding of any involvement by MBS is apparent. Theories also being purported about his previous association with his (now departed) uncle and arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi, and Jamal holding critical information which the Western world wished to bury.

The sheer hilarity of these theories isn’t important. It’s that MBS has continued sanction and faith of a majority of his citizenry in the face of any brazen allegation is what’s noteworthy.

To millions of young Saudis, MBS is still their only hope for the future: a bold leader they relate to and a visionary reformer who’s rolled back powers of the conservative clergy, given women the right to drive and reintroduced entertainment into the kingdom's otherwise sterile public life.

Now, for the second validation needed. Trump.

For someone who’s painted himself as the reformer at the gates of Saudi’s renaissance, MBS has had a long list of misadventures in recent times. A destructive and genocidal campaign in Yemen, kidnapping of the Lebanese Prime Minister, a failed blockading of Qatar, silencing of critics through a wave of arrests of clerics, businessmen and fellow princes etc. However, most of these adventures limit themselves to the Arab Gulf states and regional assertion of Saudi in its neighbourhood. That’s the way Trump looks at it, and it keeps his key Arab ally ahead and above their bête noire Iran. Even CIA’s latest evidence report on the murder investigation is based on circumstantial evidence (phone calls of a key operative) and not a smoking gun. That’s enough leeway for MBS to slink away from the blame. Expect self-flagellating confessions of charged perpetrators of the ‘rogue operation’ soon. They might even swear innocence of MBS and the may request death for the shame of this ignominy they brought him.

A rap on the knuckles (and an underlying call for restraint, not removal) from Trump can be expected (And a promise of no such misadventure repetition). That, this would figure as a poll issue for Trump anytime is unthinkable. He’s the capitalist chief in charge. “Saudi investments bring us jobs, you know”.

The only unknown for MBS’s undoing (if at all) could be the Saudi royal family itself.

The gravity of the crisis facing the ruling al-Saud family can be gauged by the sudden return to Riyadh on Tuesday of Prince Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, the last surviving full brother of the 82-year old King Salman.

The mild mannered and thoughtful Prince Ahmed had become something of a cult hero amongst the MBS opposition after he spoke out openly against the war in Yemen.

Whether the family decides on change or just weathering it out until the issue subsides, this could be the only variable swinging against MBS.

In most likelihood, MBS will lie low for a while and the perpetrators of the rogue operation’ will confess. A few months from now, another slew of social reforms might be announced.

Remember that by mid-2011, a few months into the Arab Spring uprising, almost everyone assumed that Syria's President Bashar al-Assad would be deposed by Christmas.

Seven years on, and he is still in power.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Avijit Goel

Avijit Goel

Avijit Goel is a Senior Director with Flipkart. An alumnus of the Oxford University

Read More +