Have you been following the tortuous twists and turns surrounding the brutal torture, killing and apparent dismemberment of Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Kashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2? Can you make sense of all the claims and counterclaims? Do you know who ‘did’ the deed? If you answer yes to all these questions, please step to the head of the class!
Here is what we do know. Mr. Kashoggi visited the consulate to get some paperwork done for his upcoming marriage to Hatice Cengiz, who waited for her beloved outside. He never exited. The Saudis claimed, in chronological order that he a) left the consulate (somehow avoiding his fiancee), b) they do not know where he is, c) he was killed following a fight at the consulate, d) ‘rogue elements’ were behind the killing and e) no one senior back in Riyadh knew about or ordered the assassination. Well, it turns out that a), b), probably c), d) and now e) are all falsehoods.
The Washington Post reported that the CIA on Friday had concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month, contradicting the Saudi government’s claims that he was not involved in the killing, according to people familiar with the matter. This is important as intelligence agencies do not normally issue such statements publicly, as this can expose sources and/or methods and that is a no-no in the intelligence world. We can debate for ever why they did this – are there ‘rogue elements’ in the CIA? – but in the end it is significant and is one more confirmation of what many have been saying for weeks anyway, i.e. that the orders to kill Mr. Kashoggi came from the very top. For its part, the European Union has asked the Saudis to ‘shed clarity’ on what happened.
So that’s that then, right? Case closed. Not so fast. The Saudis shockingly (not) have denied the CIA assessment and President Trump has equally shockingly (not)said he has not made his mind up yet, since he was personally told by his Saudi cronies that MBS was not involved, preferring to wait a few days for his administration to issue a ‘full report’. Saudi-friendly media have also written that the US has yet to reach a ‘final conclusion’.
What to make of all this? Well, for one the continued Saudi denials and obfuscations can safely be ignored. The Kingdom has tied itself into so many knots through its repeated lies that no sane person would give what it says now any credence. Saudi Arabia may still be seen as an important international player thanks to oil, but on this issue it must be seen as an unreliable partner.
Now on to Trump. That he has not embraced the CIA report is of course a surprise to no one. He openly mocked the FBI reporting on Russian collusion in the 2016 elections and that too is not unexpected. This most unpresidential of presidents cannot get past his own interests and ego and does not accept any criticism over anything he does. He has invested a lot in Saudi Arabia – and especially MBS – having made the Kingdom his first foreign visit after becoming president (can anyone forget that truly bizarre photo of him and the Saudi King putting their hands on that metal globe??) and cannot seem to let go or admit any error of any kind. That his son-in-law Jared Kushner is also beholden to the Saudis is not helping as The Donald seems to have made an amateur his front man on Middle East issues.
Whether or not Saudi Arabia, and more importantly MBS, are ever truly taken to task over the death of Mr. Kashoggi remains to be seen. The Kingdom is, after all, a very influential player and has been playing the US in particular for decades. For the rest of us who are not smitten with the desert princes there are very real and very crucial questions on whether Saudi Arabia should be seen as an ally on any number of fronts (‘war on terror’, what to do about Iran, etc.). The truth is that the Saudis are not, and never have been, a reliable friend and we need to see beyond the purely surface ‘reforms’ that MBS has graciously introduced (allowing women to drive, cracking down on some clerics etc.).
No, the Saudis are not the friend of the West or of anyone else for that matter. They hew to their own agenda and interests. In addition, their hateful version of Islam is the key to understanding much of modern Islamist extremism, even if they too have been hit with attacks (poetic justice?).
It is time to call the Saudis what they are: pick your own phrase as long as it does not imply they are on our side.