If ever a history of botched cover-ups that made things even worse for the criminal conspirators is written, the official explanation from Riyadh of why Jamal Khashoggi died in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – it was an argument that turned into a brawl – will rank right up there with Watergate and the Dreyfus affair.
The most obvious problem for the Saudis is that Turkey – Saudi Arabia’s rival for regional hegemony – has video and audio of what actually took place. And they insist that Khashoggi was slaughtered like an animal on the Saudi consul’s desk just minutes after entering the building.
The Turks know that they can still inflict much more humiliation on the Saudis on the international stage – and push for backroom political concessions on issues like Syria, Qatar and Iran regionally – to quietly go along with such an obvious charade. So expect at least a truncated version of the audio recording to be leaked to the Turkish media in the coming days.
But even if it isn’t, there is another problem. Namely, the Saudis presenting Khashoggi as some kind of thug who would violently lash out at anyone who forced him into a corner.
I worked with him for three years at the Saudi daily Arab News in Jeddah. I never cared for his Islamist politics, and he thought I was an awful Orientalist for arguing that the last thing Saudi Arabia needed was free and fair elections because it would bring his beloved Muslim Brotherhood to power. But I can honestly say that in his personal dealings with people he was a gentle soul who would never have hurt a fly.
For instance, he once sacked an atrocious Yemeni translator who was spending all his time in the office drinking homebrew and watching porn. ‘I will sodomise you in the middle of the street in front of your family,’ the irate Yemeni screamed at Khashoggi as the rest of us ducked for cover. Khashoggi, though, merely rolled his eyes, shut his office door, and got on with his work.
If and when the truth comes out from the Turks about what took place in the Saudi consulate, and who was personally responsible for ordering the hit, will Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman fall on his sword? It’s possible, but notwithstanding a scattering of media reports suggesting that senior Saudi royals are meeting to plot his ouster at this juncture the idea still seems like wishful thinking.
For a start, he has positioned himself as the crucial cog in US regional policy, which under President Donald Trump means containing Iran and guaranteeing Israel’s security. (Khashoggi was initially silenced because he criticised the new US-Saudi-Israeli alliance, a fact that – along with the Islamist sympathies – is probably not lost on Trump and his pro-Israel advisers.) As President Donald Trump gears up for a new phase of tighter Iranian sanctions starting next month, the last thing he wants to see is turmoil inside the Saudi royal court.
Hence Trump’s flip-flopping in reaction to Saudi Arabia’s account of Khashoggi’s murder – first it was ‘credible’ but following outrage expressed by a number of key Republican senators he declared himself ‘not satisfied’. But it would be surprising if Trump allows the murder of a Muslim Brotherhood activist who happened to write an occasional column for the Washington Post determine his Middle East policy. After all, he wasn’t especially miffed by how Egyptian President Abdul Fattah El-Sisi came to power by slaughtering a thousand Muslim Brotherhood supporters peacefully protesting in a public square.
More to the point: for all the public displeasure expressed by Trump and other Western leaders at the ludicrous Saudi account of Khashoggi’s death, the reality is that they wouldn’t easily be able to free themselves from the Gordian knot of turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s terrible human rights abuses in the name of the profit and jobs. Nor are any of them taking lightly the kingdom’s hints that it will tank the global economy by sending oil prices sky high in retaliation for any kind of sanctions.
And none of this is to mention how, in the wake of a nationalistic media campaign inside Saudi Arabia during the last two weeks in response to the international outcry about Khashoggi’s disappearance, bin Salman is now arguably more popular in Saudi Arabia than ever.
Khashoggi may have been the darling of Western media commentators on the Middle East – they loved him because he leaked them insider titbits that made them look like they knew what they were talking about. But apart from his fellow Muslim Brotherhood travellers, Khashoggi was never popular inside Saudi Arabia. Ordinary Saudis who take an interest in such matters saw him – and quite justifiably – as a turncoat who betrayed his royal paymasters after becoming fabulously wealthy by promoting their agenda for the best part of three decades.