Nine days after Jamal Khashoggi was butchered like an animal in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a 15-strong hit team almost certainly sent on their mission by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, The Spectator published a cover story by me on his murder and the political intrigue that I believed lay behind it. The essay was reprinted here, the UK magazine’s USA website, under the headline ‘What the Media Aren’t Telling You About Jamal Khashoggi’. It was contemptuously dismissed by American policy wonks. And in an especially scurrilous hit piece by Khashoggi’s former colleagues at the Washington Post, I was indirectly accused of dredging up Khashoggi’s Islamist past to ‘smear’ him.
What had I done to earn such wrath? Nothing more than document Khashoggi’s proven links, past and present, to radical Islamist movements and individuals, and by so doing challenge the Western media’s shallow narrative of Khashoggi the journalist martyred for telling the truth to power. From the outset, the idea that bin Salman wanted Khashoggi dead because he banged out a few hundred words for the Post every blue moon was an absurd supposition, at least to anyone but a hack with a hugely elevated sense of his profession. Anyway, Khashoggi was never much of a journalist. No one with serious claims to such a title would have wound up editing Saudi government propaganda outlets for years on end, as he did. Khashoggi, though, did have sincere jihadist sympathies, and they went back to the 1980s and 1990s. It was then that he combined his job as a war correspondent with working as a spook for Saudi intelligence, all while following his great friend Osama bin Laden around Afghanistan and Sudan. During the final year of his life, after he fled Saudi Arabia to settle in the United States, he became, to all intents and purposes, a Muslim Brotherhood propagandist – not, to be sure, as an advocate for jihadist violence but instead for its bastard cousin ‘Islamist democracy’. Worse, from Riyadh’s point of view, was that Khashoggi was on the cusp of launching an Islamist political party with the goal of overthrowing the monarchy. And all this while basing himself in Istanbul, from where he was going to launch a global television news network under the protection of Saudi Arabia’s arch regional rival (and Muslim Brotherhood wet dream) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. All of this, I argued, was most likely why bin Salman wanted him dead.
Fast forward three weeks, and in an almost surreal turn of events, the Post itself has just confirmed that. The newspaper quotes US officials as saying that in a phone call to Jared Kushner and John Bolton a few days after Khashoggi was murdered – meaning a week before my essay appeared – bin Salman characterized Khashoggi not as a freedom-loving truth-teller, but rather as a ‘dangerous Islamist’ while also specifically highlighting Khashoggi’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood. If I had personally interviewed bin Salman about Khashoggi’s death and quoted him verbatim, I couldn’t have given a more accurate representation of what was on his mind.
Should we expect a mea culpa from the Post and the rest of the mainstream Western media? I wouldn’t hold my breath. Indeed, instead of accepting that they got this story wrong from the outset and dealing with the consequences, they are busy quoting Khashoggi’s fiancee as saying that he was neither a dangerous person nor a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. With all due respect to her, she is perhaps the very last person on Earth likely to offer an objective assessment of who Khashoggi was and what he stood for. Khashoggi certainly wasn’t confrontational, but from a political perspective it’s not difficult to understand why he scared the crap out of bin Salman, a man who is the very definition of paranoid at the best of times.
All this matters because, in deciding how to respond to the Saudis’ decision to bump Khashoggi off, it makes a great deal of difference whether he paid with his life for writing what he thought or for acting on his political beliefs. Thankfully, even in a cursed region like the Middle East, sending a government-sponsored hit squad to a foreign country to do away with an individual merely because he is expressing unwelcome opinions is considered sheer lunacy. However, bumping off political opponents, and especially those from Islamist groups, is as much a part of Arab culture as hummus and buggering boys. Without consistency, there is only hypocrisy. If we are, as a matter of principle, going to cut ties with Saudi Arabia for this particular political assassination, we had better be prepared to cut ties with at least a dozen other countries in the Middle East and beyond – from China to Israel to Egypt.
Perhaps our political leaders should take a more pragmatic approach. In the case of Saudi Arabia, that would mean making sure that the bin Salman stays in power and eventually ascends to the throne. After all, the Khashoggi affair and subsequent cover-up has been such a PR catastrophe that, for the first time ever, it’s the West that has the Saudis over a barrel, and we should exploit that fact for all its worth. For a start, even bin Salman isn’t so unhinged that he is likely to risk ordering his henchmen to ‘do a Khashoggi’ on other exiled Saudi dissidents. They are probably safer than they have ever been. He knows, moreover, that the most sure way to get back into the Western media’s good books would be to make peace with Israel. He’s already established close trade, military and intelligence ties, so one should be surprised if he pays an unannounced trip to the Jewish state holding an olive branch in the near future. Just yesterday, in an historic first he hosted Evangelical Christians in Riyadh led by a prominent pro-Israel advocate. Turkey is using the fact that it has audio and video of the murder to blackmail the Saudis into ending the futile blockade of Qatar, and the US has given Riyadh 30 days to start peace talks in Yemen. In the meantime, bin Salman is also likely to put his foot right down to the pedal when it comes to liberalizing Saudi society. And what’s not to like about any any of that?