Missing Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s Disappearance Tells of Saudi Arabia’s Underbelly
What happens when the King’s men disavow the regime? Well, in Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy they get kidnapped, imprisoned, most likely questioned, and should they have applied themselves to offending the king: they will be condemned to death.
Indeed, to level any form of criticism at Saudi Arabia’s royals equates to an offense against God, thus punishable by death. And death comes in many imaginative ways in the kingdom: beheading, hanging, stoning, flogging etc.
On October 2, Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent journalist for the Washington Post and former Saudi intelligence official was reported missing after he stepped into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
On October 3, the Turkish foreign ministry summoned Saudi Arabia’s ambassador on Wednesday to demand that light be shone on his disappearance; a call which was quickly echoed by the United States as fears grew Khashoggi may have become the latest victim of Riyadh’s witch-hunt against ‘dissident’ voices.
Now, should Khashoggi’s disappearance matter in the face of the broad violence, abuse and altogether oppression Saudi Arabia has so far dispensed? Maybe or maybe not, but it nevertheless betrays of the unraveling of a system now focused on eating its own out of fear of being ousted.
Saudi Arabia’s Growing Isolation
If the kingdom may still appear to the naked eye an oasis of tranquillity in a region plagued by instability, I would recommend readers to cast their mind to the pages of our modern history: how many so-called stable regimes have fallen to coups d’etat and popular uprisings over the decades? Often they begin over a seemingly minor social or political upset.
As Madawi Al Rasheed writes for Newsweek: “Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) now stands alone at the top of the hierarchy, but he has lost many constituencies that allow him to rule without resorting to direct force. This situation is unsustainable and even dangerous. There’s been a serious erosion of regime legitimacy, and this is leading to a slow implosion from within.”
Indeed, over the months Riyadh has cultivated a dangerous divide with key geostrategic partners – among which are Turkey and of course Qatar – by systematically challenging nations’ sovereignty and territorial sanctity.
Though technically speaking the Saudi Consulate is Saudi Arabia’s home ground it is not fair play to so openly seek retribution against a man whose crime was to voice an opinion.
Beyond a simple diplomatic faux-pas lies the underbelly of a regime in free fall, whose ‘friends’ will soon see it as a dangerous liability and no longer a strategic partner. And yes, Washington may yet have no other choice but to dump Saudi Arabia’s golden boy: Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
However intent MBS has been to portray himself a champion reformer – the man to open up Saudi Arabia to the rest of the world and with a giant step emancipate women enough so they could climb the evolutionary ladder, at least high enough to claim an ounce of humanity – actions still speak louder than the grandest of declarations.
Is Saudi Arabia’s Royal Family Destroying Itself?
Let’s look at the facts, shall we? Since Donald Trump walked into the White House, Saudi Arabia has intensified its war on Yemen by systematically targeting civilians and civilian institutions, and it drove a hammer to the Gulf Cooperation Council by launching a political and financial blockade on Qatar thus weakening regional cohesion.
Saudi Arabia orchestrated the kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri in a botched attempt to assert its will in the Levant, and it launched a brutal sectarian repression campaign against its religious minorities so that Wahhabism/Salafism could reign undisputed. It went about arresting and brutalizing rights activists and journalists for their calls for reform, and it threatened Canada with a 9/11-type attack for questioning its human rights track record.
But no move was more shocking than that carried out against Saudi Arabia’s governing elite when MBS turned the Carlton Hotel into an interrogation center to extract cash and loyalties from his otherwise perceived rivals back in November 2017. More than 30 of Saudi Arabia’s most senior figures, among them blood relatives of senior rulers, were locked inside the hotel, accused of corruption. The arrests had been decreed by the monarch, King Salman, and carried out by his powerful son and heir, Mohammed bin Salman, who claimed to be committed to overturning most of the established order to assert his own.
The kidnapping of Mr. Khashoggi more than likely falls within this purge rationale MBS set in place. The anointed son, as it were, is quite literally using his father’s last days in power to cleanse all opposition to his rule and his vision of the future.
Only in a country such as the Saudi Kingdom – where tribal law and tribal traditions reign almighty – an affront to leadership, even if by order of the king, could revive tribes’ taste for blood and taste for a new order.
That, of course, and the fact that many of Saudi Arabia’s elite clergy are advocating a return to Wahhabism’s fundamental doctrine.
While many of us were distracted by U.S. President Trump’s ire towards Iran, it seems we missed many signs pointing to Saudi Arabia’s pending doom.
In an analysis for the Strategic Culture Foundation, Daniel Lazare makes several insightful remarks all pointing to the unraveling of the kingdom and the theo-fascism of Wahhabism/Salafism – the very pillar which supported and sustained Al Saud’s claim to power.
He writes: “In August, ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accused Saudi Arabia of “trying to secularize its inhabitants and ultimately destroy Islam … More than three thousand Saudis have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join up with al-Qaida, ISIS and other Islamist forces. Once they return home, such jihadis might constitute a fifth column threatening the royal family as well. A crumbling royal family could fall like a ripe date into their outstretched palm.”
If most will agree that an end to Al Saud’s tyranny would be a good thing, it is what replaces it that should concern and worry us. Ultimately and like so many experts including Khashoggi have said: having power concentrated in the hand of one man is never a good idea – nevermind the fact that it is unsustainable.
But to condemn Saudi Arabia to a Wahhabist takeover by sheer myopia equates to opening yet another front to the radicalism of groups like ISIS, when we could engage with regional powers to encourage positive change from within the kingdom, and thus support the democratic aspirations of millions of Saudis.