Jamal Khashoggi’s death has captured the American news cycle for nearly two months. During this time, we have seen Saudi Arabia try to unsuccessfully try to bury the story, conduct their own "investigation" and, ultimately, determine that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had nothing to do with it. President Donald Trump buys the Saudi government’s narrative, or at least wants to, in so far as any other conclusion would damage the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Other elements in the American political establishment, including the relatively new Trump faithful Lindsey Graham, would like to mildly punish the Saudi government and have become leery of MBS.
On the intelligence front, the CIA has come to view MBS as a liability and, not unrelatedly, considers him the mastermind of the Khashoggi killing, which there’s little doubt he is. Bin Salman’s status as a liability is due to his rash behavior in kidnapping and extorting money from members of the Saudi elite last year, kidnapping the Lebanese prime minister, igniting tensions with Qatar and now this. MBS may be virulently anti-Iran and pro-Israel, but what does that matter if he causes social instability and then the House of Saud goes under? Then Christmas will not come for American arms dealers and the politicians whose campaigns they helped finance.
Khashoggi worked for an American newspaper, The Washington Post. The fact that he’s associated with an American organization seems to be the main reason why the story has stuck around for two months. Other Saudi killings of dissidents have hardly raise eyebrows, including Saudi state prosecutors’ seeking the death penalty for women human rights activists and the Saudi government’s killing of the nonviolent Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr in early January 2016.
Though in recent months we have heard more grumbling from U.S. legislators about Saudi Arabia’s Yemen intervention and there’s been some good mainstream media coverage on this from PBS and New York Times, it is far from the perpetual coverage that the Khashoggi murder has aroused. It matters little to Lindsey Graham, other GOP members and some Democratic politicians that Saudi Arabia and its allies, backed by the US, are principally responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians and a famine in Yemen, one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes on earth. But when someone who works for an American company is killed, Republicans, Democrats and the mainstream media clamor to no end. More strategically-minded American politicians are not only guided by Khashoggi’s American connections, but also by the collective unconscious of the CIA: perhaps Mohammed bin Nayef may have been a better choice for crown prince (and hence, future king) than the more volatile MBS.
Leaving out MBS’s primary role as one of today’s most egregious war criminals in using famine as a weapon of war in Yemen – is he otherwise committed to social reform?
The only real social reform enacted by MBS is in allowing women to drive, moving Saudi Arabia up to the lowest common denominator on women’s rights in the world. Still, if Saudi women politically mobilize, they will likely be imprisoned and face the prospect of capital punishment.
What’s really at work is that MBS is somewhat of a visionary – at least in the context of Saudi Arabia rulers, which isn’t saying all that much. Unlike other Saudi rulers, he understands that the price of oil will remain lucrative only in the short term, but in the long-term, prices are destined to fall dramatically. If Saudi Arabia still relies on oil revenue for its extensive welfare payments and securing the Saudi state 30 years into the future, it will face serious social problems – the oil revenue won’t cut it. Therefore, MBS’s solution has been to wear a modern, cosmopolitan mask to attract international finance to hasten the development of a Saudi economy beyond oil, which includes Saudis working in greater numbers, industrial development and perhaps even building a knowledge sector. To the latter end – remember Sophia? The robot granted citizenship in a country where women and foreign workers have little-to-no rights?
In short, MBS’s real aim has been to transform the Saudi economy; to do so, he needs to feign social reform, otherwise finding new investors would be challenging.
The Saudi neighbor and ally, the United Arab Emirates, has successfully worn a cosmopolitan mask (and, to a degree, has arguably become a bit more modern and cosmopolitan as a result) to attract tourist dollars and become an international transportation hub. Constructing the biggest and most bombastic concoctions has helped Dubai become a destination spot. Visitors can view the highest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, the world’s biggest mall, the Dubai Mall, inside of which is the world’s second largest aquarium, and artificial islands resembling palm trees. The wealth of the fairly conservative Emiratis allows them not to mind too much the bright colors worn by and foreign culture of South Asian workers, nor the Western women in downtown Dubai wearing shorts and often scantily clad outfits. Not to say that the UAE is a model for MBS’s vision of the future, but the way this neighbor wears the cosmopolitan mask to gain wealth beyond oil is likely difficult for bin Salman to ignore.
To lessen future Saudi reliance on oil, MBS has needed investment money. To this end he robbed wealthy Saudis a year ago under an anti-corruption guise. He acts against the speciously-labeled "Iranian backed" Houthis in Yemen to deflect the Saudi population’s angst over the pretext of social reforms and his goal of Saudis working in greater numbers. Throughout the region, he has acted aggressively, perhaps to justify increased arms sales from the US (arms, which can ultimately solidify his rule), from going after Qatar for allegedly sponsoring terrorism and being too close with Iran to forcing the temporary resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri as a pressure mechanism to remove Hezbollah from parliament.
But then MBS took a step too far. Not merely did he ignite tension with a country that hosts a strategic American military base, Qatar, but had a journalist murdered who worked for an American newspaper. That is a big no-no.
Igniting famine and perpetuating a civil war that may well have ended in March 2015 – that’s okay.
Subverting Lebanese sovereignty – that’s ok, too. The US excels at ignoring the sovereign rights of nations.
Robbing rich Saudis – well, you need money, you do what you have to.
But killing someone who works for the prestigious Washington Post – that doesn’t fly!
In this sense, Republicans, Democrats and the mainstream media are all equally America First.
Surely, Yemenis, who now starve to death, would tend to agree.
Peter Crowley is an independent writer and scholar with a M.S. in Conflict Resolution, Global Studies from Northeastern University. He works as Content Specialist/Production Coordinator for a prominent library science company. For fun, he plays in bluesy rock band around the Boston/NYC area. His writings can be found in Boston Literary Magazine, Mondoweiss, Mint Press News, (several publications in) Wilderness House Literary Review, Counterpunch, Foreign Policy Journal, Truthout, Green Fuse Press, Antiwar.com, Rhinocerotic, Peace Studies Journal, Ethnic Studies Review (forthcoming), Inquiries Journal and a periodical publication of the Brookline, MA Historical Society.