Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi

Summary: Erdoğan all but fingers MBS for the murder. Prince Ahmad returns from London. Saudi Arabia losing some of its international grip, e.g. on Yemen.

It is now clear that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate-general in Istanbul by Saudi agents, some of whom are known to be linked to MBS. Many questions remain unanswered, the most important being who ordered or authorised the killing.

In a 2 November interview in the Washington Post, in which Khashoggi was a columnist and which has taken a lead in publicising his murder, President Erdoğan listed some outstanding questions which he said the Saudi authorities had refused to answer: “Where is Khashoggi’s body? Who is the ‘local collaborator’ to whom Saudi officials claimed to have handed over Khashoggi’s remains? Who gave the order to kill this kind soul?” He said that “we know the order to kill Khashoggi came from the highest levels of the Saudi government” and went on “I do not believe for a second that King Salman, the custodian of the holy mosques, ordered the hit on Khashoggi.” The Saudi public prosecutor who had visited his counterpart in Istanbul had refused to answer even simple questions and his invitation for Turkish investigators to go to Saudi Arabia “felt like a desperate and deliberate stalling tactic… we must reveal the identities of the puppetmasters”.

Most commentators had already concluded that the puppetmaster is MBS, and Erdoğan’s comments point the finger as clearly as possible without actually naming him. The consequences of this affair, both internally in Saudi Arabia and for Saudi Arabia’s credibility as an international power and partner, are beginning to show themselves.

The affair has generated a flood of news and fake news. Those who have spoken in defence of MBS do not carry much conviction. The billionaire Prince al-Walid bin Talal who was detained and reportedly tortured last year, and has not left Saudi Arabia since, said the investigation would exonerate MBS; the day before he spoke his brother Prince Khalid who had also been detained was released. Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first comment on the affair, said on 2 November that while the killing was “horrendous… it is very important for the stability of the region and the world that Saudi Arabia remain stable… The larger problem I believe is Iran”. The New York Post summed it up in a headline: “Netanyahu: Saudi Arabia deserves a pass for Khashoggi murder.”

As predicted by some opposition sources (our posting of 26 October), and as first reported (before the media) by the anonymous blogger on Saudi affairs Mujtahidd, Prince Ahmad bin Abd al-Aziz, the only remaining credible candidate as king or crown prince from the older generation – sons of the founder Ibn Saud – returned to Saudi Arabia on 30 October from retirement in the UK. As a senior member of the royal family Prince Ahmad, 76, has a respectable but not outstanding record as deputy minister of interior for over 25 years, and briefly minister in 2012. According to Al Jazeera he appeared in a controversial video in September speaking to protesters in London; he asked them why they were complaining to him about the war in Yemen instead of the king and crown prince.

If the family were to move collectively to replace the king or crown prince, as they replaced King Saud in 1964, he would probably be the man they would choose. A Voice of America report suggests that he might press for convening a family council to discuss how to control the fallout from the murder, perhaps by appointing a “guardian” for MBS. Mujtahidd tweeted on 1 November that for the first time there was a serious move to get rid of MBS, led by Prince Ahmad, but they were too timid to get rid of the King although they knew that he was out of his mind; they had told or would tell MBS to resign as Crown Prince (retaining his other positions) before he was deposed (such courage could only come because they had European support). MBS had (still according to Mujtahidd) refused to resign but was ready to stop the Yemen war and the siege of Qatar, and to pay off Turkey. The allegation of European support has been repeated, for example in a Middle East Eye report.

Yesterday 4 November Reuters were told that King Salman will tomorrow embark on a week long domestic tour, the first since he became king.

James Dorsey comments that the Khashoggi affair has sparked renewed debate in both the US and Saudi Arabia about the value of the alliance between them, and about Saudi Arabia’s ability to be a leader of moderate Islam, and also in Europe and Israel, even in Russia and China; “No one is contemplating a full rupture in relations, yet leaders on all sides of the divide realize that the Khashoggi crisis is a watershed that at the very least has fundamentally changed perceptions.”

On 27 October the US defence secretary Jim Mattis told a security conference in Bahrain that the affair undermined Middle Eastern stability and that Washington would take additional measures against those responsible.   On 31 October, in an unexpected development, Mike Pompeo called for an end of hostilities in Yemen, and for UN led negotiations to end the civil war next month; missile and drone strikes by the Houthis and airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition must cease; Mattis, in an apparently separate statement on the same day, said the US had been watching the Yemen conflict “for long enough… We have got to move toward a peace effort here, and we can’t say we are going to do it sometime in the future… We need to be doing this in the next 30 days.” Jeremy Hunt described the US announcements as extremely welcome and said that the UK had been working to bring together the Saudi coalition and the Houthis, backing the UN. According to Bloomberg the US is also ratcheting up pressure on Saudi Arabia to restore relations with Qatar.

Trump has gone quiet, and on 2 November a Washington Post article denounced him for doing nothing “in the face of outrageous lies”. Jared Kushner, reportedly close to MBS, has also gone quiet. On 1 September Pompeo said it would be a “handful more weeks” before the US had enough evidence to impose sanctions in response to the killing, and that President Trump had made it clear Washington would respond and “demand accountability”.

The Kennedy School at Harvard “dis-invited” from a week in residence Prince Turki bin Faisal, former ambassador in London and Washington. Five Republican senators, and separately one Democrat, wrote to Trump calling for a halt in talks with Saudi Arabia about civil nuclear energy, and others have expressed both encouragement and scepticism about the new statements by Pompeo and Mattis about ending the fighting in Yemen.

Two Saudi sisters who had applied for political asylum in the US and whose mother had been ordered by the Saudi embassy to leave the US were found drowned in the Hudson River on 24 October; later reports indicate that they committed suicide.

Joel Rosenberg meets the Saudi Crown Prince in Riyadh on November 1.

Joel Rosenberg meets the Saudi Crown Prince in Riyadh on November 1.. (photo credit: ROYAL PALACE / SAUDI PRESS AGENCY)

On 1 November the Jerusalem Post reported a meeting in Riyadh between MBS and US evangelical Christian leaders led by a prominent pro-Israel advocate who lives in Israel.

This is a sample Arab Digest newsletter.

To start receiving complete daily newsletters, click on the link below for your Free 30-day Trial or Join Arab Digest now to receive full membership benefits.

Join TodayBack to Sample NewslettersFree 30-day Trial