Not so long ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed ibn Salman was lauded by the West as the man who would drag his country into the modern world.
Then came the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—a Washington Post columnist and a persistent critic of the prince, but also a Muslim Brother—tortured and put to death in the Istanbul Saudi Consulate.
And suddenly, the kingdom is everyone’s enemy.
Apparently, the consulate was bugged by the Turkish security establishment which is busy leaking more and more gruesome details to the Turkish press—from the horrendous torture to which Khashoggi was subjected to blood-chilling accounts of the saw used to cut the body into pieces. A forensic Turkish team dispatched to the consulate found damning evidence of the crime.
More details were published by the media in the United States. The New York Times revealed that most members of the Saudi team that came to the consulate before Khashoggi’s arrival were members of the security establishment or close associates of MBS; there was even a pathologist. There is now no doubt that the assassination had been carried out at the instigation, if not on the order, of the crown prince himself.
In short, this was the savage killing of a defenseless man by an execution team inside the Saudi consulate—not something carried out in some lonely place under cover of the night by some unidentified assailants, and therefore difficult to investigate. Here, the deed left too many traces that could not be eradicated for Western countries to turn a blind eye to what had taken place.
It was a rude awakening for the supporters of the young prince. They had hoped to see the kingdom, led by the family of the descendants of its founder, and ruled according to the Sharia, go through a quiet palace revolution under the leadership of the prince.
Yet MBS is (still?) the country’s strong man, and in past years, he has initiated Saudi’s foreign, security and economic policies. He had pledged to free the kingdom of its dependence on oil and to set up a new economic system based on state-of-the art industry, high-tech, tourism and entertainment. He even did away with some of the limitations on women’s activities. He also embarked on a war again the Houthis in Yemen and forced the Lebanese prime minister to resign—neither moves being overly successful. Nevertheless, it seems that he was so sure of himself that he sanctioned a heinous crime and is now busy fabricating denials and explications that no one will believe, but which may be accepted for reasons of realpolitik.
We are not there yet. The media, major television channels such as CNN, American global telecommunications hub Comcast and others, including the president of the International monetary fund, Christine Lagarde, have spontaneously decided to boycott “Davos in the desert” the forthcoming economic forum due to be held later this month convened by the Crown Prince to encourage investments to promote his economic vision. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is a major player in the fight against Iran; it is expected to increase its oil production to make up for Iranian exports that will be severely curtailed by new American sanctions at the beginning of November.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who talked both with the king and the crown prince did say that he took the whole episode seriously but wondered whether it had not been committed by “rogue elements,” adding that his country would proceed with the massive armament deal entered with Saudi Arabia for a total of 110 billion dollars in order not to penalize the economic of his country. Most Western countries are doing such good business with the kingdom that they will do their utmost to accept the feeble explanations provided by Riyadh.
What is unclear is whether the bin Salman will pay the price—not because of the crime, but because he managed to embroil the kingdom in a worldwide feud. Will his royal father be forced to fire him in order to placate the international community? The question is in the open.
And yet … other countries, and not only in the Middle East, have done far worse in terms of murder and torture without being taken to task or even blamed.
Russia, China, Iran and Turkey are persecuting and oppressing some of their own people; Russia and Iran secretly send execution teams in other countries. The international community knows who is responsible, but these operations are carried out in a gray area and proof are hard to come by. Iran has jailed, tortured and killed opponents of the Islamic regime or potential troublemakers in the tens of thousands. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used the failed military coup to justify a massive epuration in the army, the administration, the judiciary and the media, firing and/or jailing more than 150,000 people.
In both cases, the West made some mild remonstrations to show its concern, but nothing concrete.
Dreadful crimes were and are still committed in some of the countries of Islam and in Africa, triggering tepid condemnations. Only after the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda and the massacres in the former Yugoslavia were international courts set up and suspected criminals brought to justice, but these came from minor states that could not cope with international pressure.
Russia, China, Iran and Turkey—being world or regional powers with political and military clout—will never agree to let their citizens judged in international courts as long as the West cannot speak with one voice on the subject, and either impose a boycott or launch a military operation.
Saudi Arabia does not wield the same military and political clout as Iran and Turkey; worse, its agents carried out a monstrous crime practically openly. The West will have no choice but to do “something,” however limited in scope, until it can move one. What remains to be seen is which neatly packaged version Saudi Arabia will provide for the events that took place in its consulate.
Zvi Mazel, the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Romania and Sweden, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.