The Khashoggi Case, a Tipping Point for the Middle East?
Three Questions to Michel Duclos and Soli Özel
On 2 October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, an internationally renowned Saudi journalist exiled in the United States because he had moderately criticized Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), disappeared after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Michel Duclos, Special Advisor to Institut Montaigne, and Soli Özel, a Turkish journalist expert of the Middle East and Visiting Fellow at Institut Montaigne, both answer our questions on the possible consequences of this case.
Assuming the Saudi state did orchestrate J. Khashoggi's death, why would MBS take such a risk for his image?
At this point in time, it is impossible to know the level of the Saudi State at which decisions were hypothetically taken. The way out clearly seems to be attributing responsibility to subordinate and uncontrolled levels of the Saudi apparatus.
That being said, one must admit that this crime is part of a broader trend, one characteristic of a world in which authoritarian powers believe they can do just about anything. Cynics will say this has always been the case. Yet the fact that America gave up on its defense of liberal values, along with Europe's withdrawal in this matter, foster the worst kinds of practices. This is particularly true in the Middle East, where the Arab Spring’s failure gave way to a wave of counter-revolutionaries, regardless of their political or ideological beliefs.
What is most surprising, if the decision did come from Riyadh, is the considerable misjudgment of attacking a journalist, and a well-known one at that, especially in Washington. There were obviously going to be important reactions.
Whether it is the result of a fight, as Saudi Arabia now conveniently claims, or an actual premeditated murder, we must now find an explanation for Mr. Khashoggi’s death. We do not know the level of the Saudi State at which the decision was taken, but it is doubtful that such a crime could have been committed without the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) being involved. We have the photos and names of the group of Saudis who arrived in Istanbul on the same day Mr Khashoggi went to the consulate. At least four of them are linked to the upper echelons of the Saudi state, if not directly to the Crown Prince. In their hard-to-believe account of the incident the Saudis officially acknowledged the involvement of these persons in the murder, claiming this was an interrogation gone awry.
Why Istanbul? First, because it was materially doable: Saudi Arabia knew that Mr Khashoggi had to go to Istanbul for administrative procedures and he was expected at the consulate, which made it possible to prepare for his murder. The choice of Istanbul also sends a dual message. The first is directed to the Arab world, since this city now hosts most of the Ikhwanist (Muslim Brotherhood) dissidents in the region (especially Egyptians). It is Riyadh’s way of telling them they aren’t safe anywhere. It is also a message for Turkey and Turkish diplomacy, which sometimes goes against Saudi interests. Ankara, for example, has good relations with Qatar, and even saved Doha from a possible Saudi invasion in the Summer of 2017.
Whatever the reasons though, murdering Mr Khashoggi was a completely reckless decision on the part of Saudi Arabia. He was a well-known journalist, who had some ties with American elites and the media. This crime could not go unnoticed, and it is likely to further damage the image that American journalists convey of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Mr Khashoggi’s murder undermines all the Kingdom's efforts to try to improve its reputation in the West. The fact that many Western companies supposed to attend a business congress in Riyadh decided to boycott the event - which was finally cancelled - proves that the Khashoggi case is increasing Saudi Arabia’s notoriety significantly.
What consequences might J. Khashoggi's death have on the strategic relationship between Washington and Riyadh?
It is worth remembering Saudi Arabia's unpopularity with a large part of the American political class. This was very clear in the Obama era, when Congress demanded that the pages of the 9/11 Commission Report dealing with official Saudi contacts with the hijackers be published. A law had also been passed to allow victims of the September 11 attacks to file complaints against Saudi Arabia. It had been fiercely opposed by Saudi lobbies in Washington.
In this context, the American-Saudi relationship will most likely not be harmed by the Khashoggi case in the short term, as Mr Trump protects his Saudi ally. Yet the palace’s mistake might weaken MbS in his own country in the medium term. It will also reinforce the American political class’s suspicion towards Riyadh, and the former will expect a reaction.
This case could also divide the Republican Party, as well as the foreign and security affairs elites in Washington and the business community. Republican Senators Graham and Corker took firm positions against Riyadh, while Mr Trump seems to persist in defending his ally.
The relationship between Washington and Riyadh will be affected by the Khashoggi case, as demonstrated by the return of the Saudi ambassador to the United States (MBS' brother) back to Riyadh. The Trump administration, probably in coordination with Turkish authorities, will help Saudi Arabia to find a way out of this situation. This will give Washington and Ankara more leverage on Saudi domestic affairs. What use will they make of this new advantage? They will probably not change the human rights and freedoms situation in Saudi Arabia. Pressure from the United States on Saudi policy towards a regional crisis, such as that in Yemen, cannot be entirely ruled out. Yet it is more likely that Washington will try to weigh in on the internal power balance in Saudi Arabia. A rebalancing of power in favor of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who has always been the American military and security services’ favorite, is thus a conceivable option.
However, the first signals sent by King Salman do not seem to follow that path, as he appointed his son as the head of a commission to reconstruct the security apparatus after a top Saudi administrator was dismissed from the intelligence services for his alleged implication in the Khashoggi fiasco. This demonstrates that the Salman clan is now in a zero-sum game with other clans of the family, and will not sacrifice its son.
Muhammad bin Nayef is indeed an important figure in the Saudi state, whom the Americans would like to support. The Turks could, for their part, ask for a decrease in Saudi support to Kurdish rebels in Northern Syria in exchange for their help to Riyadh. The final word on what the Turkish government will do will come from President Erdoğan tomorrow as he addresses his parliamentary caucus. Journalists close to the government wrote detailed articles on Monday that unmistakably blame the Crown Prince and belie the argument that Khashoggi died as a result of a struggle with the Saudi security personnel sent to Istanbul the day of his murder.
Indeed, regarding the Syrian Kurdish issue, Turkey and the United States have conflicting agendas.
How could the Khashoggi case impact regional balances?
Almost the entire Arab world expressed its support to the Saudis, which proves that Riyadh’s money is still an indispensable resource for Arab allies. Even Saad Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, presented himself as the Kingdom’s friend and supporter. Within Saudi Arabia, propaganda tools were very efficient in spreading conspiracy theories.
Despite this, the Khashoggi case weakens Saudi Arabia at the regional level, since it shows that Riyadh really needs the support of its Arab neighbors, which was paid for. The Palestinians may have seen this case as an opportunity to encourage Saudi Arabia to abandon Jared Kushner's and MBS' project on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kuwait just signed a security agreement with Turkey.
The Khashoggi case does weaken Saudi Arabia, and strengthens Turkey. Mr Erdogan is currently in a position of power over Russia, Washington and Riyadh. At the same time, he needs Europe and the United States to support his economy. Otherwise, Russia's silence is telling of the limits of Moscow's influence in the Middle East.
Crédit photo : MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH / AFP