Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives in Saudi Arabia today, dispatched at short notice by President Donald Trump. His mission near-impossible? To help orchestrate a believable cover-up for the kingdom’s brutal murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago of Muslim Brotherhood activist, and one-time Saudi intelligence officer, Jamal Khashoggi. CNN says the Saudi regime may finally be ready to admit that Khashoggi was murdered, but will portray it as an accident during an attempted abduction gone wrong. The blame will be placed on (in Trump’s words) ‘rogue elements’ in the Saudi security apparatus, who improbably undertook the task without the consent or knowledge of the Saudi leadership. If this is what transpires, it would appear that the hitmen, as well as the Saudi consul general and his staff in Istanbul, are now at risk of literally losing their heads – sacrificial lambs at the alter of global outrage. Even Washington lobbyists are busy dropping lucrative contracts with the kingdom.
Few in the West, though, are going to buy this new version of events. If the intention was merely to bundle Khashoggi into the back of a van, why did the kingdom’s top forensic scientist allegedly arrive in Istanbul with a bone saw in hand? Indeed, even for a Saudi-funded media, this is going to be one hell of a hard sell. Until now, they’ve been dismissing Khashoggi’s disappearance as fake news. In the past, it could all have been conveniently blamed on the Jews (as were the September 11 attacks, also coincidentally carried out by 15 Saudi nationals). Saudi Arabia and Israel, though, are now in an alliance against Iran, so the assassins will instead probably be ‘exposed’ as Qatari or Iranian fifth columnists.
Cue an avalanche of Western media criticism of Trump for letting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, off the hook. By any objective measure, though, Trump has handled this sudden crisis in US-Saudi relations – the worst since 9/11 – with just the right amount of carrot and stick: threatening sanctions to get the Saudis to at least come clean about bumping Khashoggi off and hold whoever did it to account, while offering to assist in the joint Turkish-Saudi investigation so everyone can save face and move on.
From the outset, Trump crucially understood that this was someone else’s battle. He sensibly remained silent for as long as he could. As I explain in the cover feature for this week’s issue of The Spectator magazine, and contrary to what everyone else has been telling us non-stop for the past two weeks, at the time of his death Khashoggi was not a journalist in any meaningful sense of the word. And he hadn’t been one since the mid 1990s. The idea, anyway, that he was butchered for banging out a few hundred words of Muslim Brotherhood propaganda in the Washington Post every couple of weeks was always an absurd assumption. We can all agree that bin Salman is batshit crazy, but there’s clearly method in his madness.
The truth is that Khashoggi became wealthy beyond his dreams by, firstly, working for Saudi intelligence and media outlets, and afterwards by justifying Saudi regime human rights abuses in the Western media in his role as a government adviser. All the while he harboured deep sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was tolerated because he was bought off and not therefore politically active. Finally, he threw his lot in with Turkish President Erdogan – every political Islamists’ wet dream, who last week described Khashoggi as an ‘old acquaintance’. Khashoggi did so because bin Salman had turned against radical Islam in Saudi Arabia, jailed prominent the Muslim Brotherhood clerics who were Khashoggi’s fellow travellers, and silenced Khashoggi himself after he criticised moves towards normalising relations with Israel.
Whichever version of the story of his murder you believe, bin Salman emerges from this sorry saga weakened. If these really were rogue elements from the top-level of his security apparatus, he clearly does not rule with the total power and control he needs to turn his vision of a modern Saudi Arabia into reality. Taking note will be his many enemies inside the royal family, as well as the bitter military chiefs bin Salman has summarily dismissed. Alternatively, if bin Salman is about to throw to the wolves a bunch of assassins he did in fact send on their mission, including three of his personal bodyguards, he will be betraying the only people surrounding him he can trust apart from immediate family. The result is that Saudi Arabia is about to enter an era of even greater paranoia and political repression.
Looked at another way, though, it’s a win-win for all sides. Bin Salman’s most powerful opponent outside of the royal family is dead, and he can get back to dragging the kingdom into the 21st century. With the audio and video evidence of the crime apparently in his hands, Erdogan gains leverage over rival Saudi Arabia as they vie for influence in the region, just as frosty relations with the US thaw following the release of American Pastor Andrew Brunson. We can all breath a sigh of relief that Saudi Arabia will not carry out its threat to tank the global economy. The assassins will lose their heads. And Trump, once again, can prove that he is a master of diplomacy.
John R. Bradley is the author of four books on the Middle East.