(October 17, 2018 / JNS) Saudi Arabia appears to have severely miscalculated its ability to quietly silence critics after it has come under strong suspicion over the disappearance and possible murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a fierce critic of the Saudi government and a columnist for The Washington Post. Khashoggi was in self-imposed exile in the United States after fleeing Saudi Arabia last year amid a crackdown on intellectuals and activists critical of the kingdom.
Khashoggi was visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to obtain papers that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancée. According to a number of news outlets, Turkish officials have said that Khashoggi was butchered into pieces after he was killed in the consulate.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), as well as other senior officials to clarify the events leading up to Khashoggi’s disappearance. U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to take action if Riyadh is indeed responsible, but has also said that Salman has “totally denied any knowledge.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called the disappearance “a big deal,” and said the Justice Department was “seriously evaluating” a role in the investigation.
While Riyadh originally claimed that Khashoggi left the consulate in Turkey alive, it appears that it is now backtracking that story, and is rumored to be releasing a statement declaring culpability for Khashoggi’s disappearance. The latest reports indicate that Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a Saudi diplomat and intelligence officer with close ties with MBS is under investigation by Turkish authorities for the alleged murder.
With an alleged human-rights violation in the public spotlight, Saudi Arabia’s allies may now try to distance themselves from the kingdom’s leadership. While Israel is not an ally, its ties with Riyadh have grown visibly stronger, primarily over joint concerns regarding Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. At the same time, Saudi Arabia was also rumored to play a role in the long-awaited Mideast peace plan the Trump administration has been touting, with Trump’s son-in-law, senior adviser and key Middle Easy negotiator Jared Kushner reportedly striking a close relationship with the crown prince.
‘These relationships are like mushrooms’
So, how will the Khashoggi incident further complicate U.S. and Israeli interests in the region?
Yoel Gruzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told JNS that Israel is smart for staying out of the fray. “So far, and rightfully so, Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] is not talking about it. This is smart. Israel has no interest in discussing the issue.”
“Having said that, Israel should continue to be cautious. In light of the young crown prince’s character [and] the way he has run the kingdom the past three years, I would advise Israel to be cautious. Don’t put all your eggs in the Saudi basket.
“There is still a possibility of internal instability in Saudi Arabia,” he continued. “This is not certain, and chances are still not high. However, they are higher than they were a few years ago. The prince still needs his father, [but] the problem is that his father is very old. The prince wants legitimacy for his foreign policy. Internally, he picked fights with everyone—family, clerics and businessmen.”
Gruzansky said he is worried about instability in Saudi Arabia, saying “Israel has an interest that Saudi Arabia stay stable. Khashoggi is just the tip of an iceberg. Many others have disappeared. Israel should be cautious and so far it is.”
Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, told JNS that he is not particularly surprised by the purported murder of Khashoggi.
“So, Mohammad bin Salman is on a wild tear, but no one notices until a journalist resident in the United States is, apparently, savagely disposed of? We should know by now what the Saudi regime is; if we did, the Khashoggi incident would be dismaying, but not shocking,” he said.
Nevertheless, Pipes believes that the purported murder and fallout should not derail the Trump administration’s main goal in the Middle East, which is to target Iran.
“Trump’s main Middle East agenda, as I understand it, is to contain and weaken the Islamic Republic of Iran. Toward this end, he seeks a grand alliance of Israel and the Saudi-led bloc,” he said. “I hope this goal remains in place—that the touching naiveté of so many Americans does not get in the way of a correct goal.”
Joshua Krasna, an expert on strategic and political developments in the Arab world at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told JNS that the current drama surrounding Khashoggi “affects Israel indirectly because it does have a relationship with Saudi Arabia, which existed for a long time, but in a very unofficial, noncommittal way. These relationships are like mushrooms. They grow best in darkness.”
According to Krasna, there has been a lot of talk both in the United States and Israel in recent years about a moderate Arab camp that has a lot in common with Israel.
“There is a crisis situation in the Arab world, and the Saudis feel they are the only ones who can do the heavy lifting,” he said. “The Americans feel comfortable with that because of MBS. Even though Saudi Arabia is probably the least developed politically of all the Muslim countries in the Middle East, with a rudimentary political system and an absolute monarchy, MBS is leading the country and appears to be taking it in a reformist direction.”
Krasna said that MBS is closely associated with the present one, but not without some friction. MBS was generally well-liked, but there were a few bridges he tried to cross and failed—for instance, when he tried to force Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign in 2017. Also, in 2016, he imposed an embargo on Qatar that didn’t work. MBS is also the architect of the war in Yemen—and it’s not over yet.
The Khashoggi drama, according to Krasna, is just another indication of his “overreaching and impulsive nature.”
“MBS is not a magician,” said Krasna. “He talks a good game. He is trying to do things, like taking Saudi Arabia from the 11th century to the 21st, but there is a good chance he won’t succeed,” adding that, “I hope he does.”
A number of other crucial points are also at play, according to Krasna. “First, this affair shows MBS is a person who can be impulsive and can make the wrong decisions. For that reason, Israel needs to be careful.
“Second, when these stories mentioned earlier were piling up over the years, there was more criticism in Congress.”
‘U.S. administration went too far with MBS’
With the U.S.-Saudi relationship again under the microscope (in 2001, it was after 19 Saudi hijackers carried out the infamous 9/11 attacks), Krasna believes that there will be more criticism over America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia in general. After all, it remains a non-democratic country many people remember as one of the main supporters of Sunni Islamic extremism in its beginning.
“There is going to be backlash in the U.S. Those who do not like the direction of the president’s policy now have a perfect case,” said Krasna.
But there will also be more specific criticism of MBS himself. “The U.S. administration went too far with MBS,” said Krasna. “And that will retreat now. It’s a problem because MBS was a key element in the American strategy against Iran, and apparently, he was a key element in the American plan for potentially the greatest deal ever: Arab-Israeli peace.”
Krasna chided those hopeful Israelis “who want to hear certain things so much, and are looking for novel and clever solutions, and who perhaps thought some of them might be in MBS’ hands. If all the other stories weren’t enough to show that this isn’t someone you can build elaborately on, this will help to make it clearer.
“I don’t think the Israeli government went too far with MBS, but certainly, some individuals did,” he said. “This gives us a reality check of who we are working with here.”
With additional reporting from Sean Savage