Only a few weeks ago, with U.S.-Turkey relations on the rocks over the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson, it seemed like Saudi Arabia was poised to be the country on which the United States plans to base its regional policy.
But when it comes to the Middle East, a few weeks may as well be an eternity. Brunson’s release over the weekend has put Ankara back in Washington’s good graces, while the murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has placed Riyadh on a collision course with the White House.
Khashoggi’s gruesome murder by a rumored Saudi “assassination squad” has outraged the international community and the United States, and they want answers.
The biggest surprise in this sordid affair came over the apparent involvement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in this plot, which shattered his carefully crafted image as a progressive, enlightened Saudi leader, raising serious questions about the judgment of the man currently leading major Saudi policies.
Since being named crown prince in 2007, Mohammed has been hailed by the West as the man who could lead the Persian Gulf kingdom into the 21st century.
He was off to a promising start, introducing a vision meant to modernize Saudi Arabia and pushing many reforms, including some concerning women’s rights. Politically, he proved determined to curb Iran’s ambitions in the region and voiced surprisingly moderate views on Israel.
But political experience and shrewdness are acquired with agony, and the crown prince has proven reckless more than once.
His positions against Iran’s involvement in the Yemeni civil war, for example, has plunge Saudi Arabia into a costly conflict with no end in sight. Another fiasco was the alleged “abduction” of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, during which he resigned his post while visiting Riyadh. The move, which Lebanon claimed was made under duress, strained Saudi-Lebanese ties to the point where Riyadh claimed Beirut had declared war between the two.
The dispute, thought to be part of the larger Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict, eventually ended when Hariri returned to Lebanon and rescinded his resignation.
And now the prince is allegedly embroiled in the murder of a Saudi journalist on Turkish soil.
Disposing of dissidents is a matter of routine in the Middle East—and elsewhere in the world—where critics of certain governments seem to disappear or die under mysterious circumstances. Europe is no stranger to this practice either, as one can learn from the poisoning of Russian defectors on British soil.
But silencing dissidents on foreign soil is playing with fire. Those who claim to be part of the enlightened Western world must accept some of its rules and values and more importantly, they must exhibit prudence and sophistication.
The Istanbul assassination showed neither and the West now wants the Saudis to pay for their crimes.
At the end of the day, a compromise will be found to remove this affair from the public and diplomatic agendas. Junior Saudi officials will undoubtedly be made to shoulder the blame, and Riyadh will surely pledge to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.
Still, Khashoggi’s assassination has turned Saudi Arabia into the Middle East’s “bad boy.” Saudi Arabia’s allies, including the United States and Israel, had expected more from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and their disappointment is palpable.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.