The shifting official version might keep the public’s eye, but the death of Jamal Khashoggi is merely a sleight of hand played in a much bigger game.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is a study in foreign policy manipulation. Nothing is what it seems and most public statements and media reports mask a series of ulterior motives.
Reports that Khashoggi had likely been killed inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul broke on Friday the 5th of October. By that time, the prominent Saudi journalist had already been missing for four days.
The media narrative that erupted worldwide was consistent and remarkably simple. Khashoggi walked into the consulate. Saudi operatives close to the royal family interrogated, tortured him, cut off his fingers, killed, and then dismembered him with a bone saw. Khashoggi’s body was smuggled out of Turkey in pieces. The Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman either ordered the murder or, at the very least, was implicated.
The response of the international community has been similarly uniform. The Saudi regime has been condemned. The media and public figures are united behind calls the crown prince be removed from power: surgical regime change.
The uniformity of narrative and uncomfortable coordination between the international media and political elites masks a significant amount of background noise drowned out by faux moral outrage.
Why does the murder of a single journalist indicate the Saudi regime is intolerable while that state’s invasion of Yemen in 2015 and its involvement in the blockade of Qatar did not? According to the Legal Center for Rights and Development, 12,907 civilians have been killed in Yemen so far. Approximately 130 children are dying in Yemen every day from hunger and disease.
Why, if a consulate is one of the most secure domiciles in a territory, is so much information being disclosed to the media about what transpired during a high-level interrogation, what one would imagine ought be a highly sensitive and discrete operation?
Why is the immediate and unquestioning prescription to remove the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman?
Starting with the first question first … the murder of Khashoggi doesn’t say anything new about the Saudi regime. If anything it merely confirms what everybody already knew. Saudi Arabia is a theocratic autocracy that has been run by the same family since Ibn Saud conquered the Arabian Peninsula in 1912. The reason this particular murder has been elevated to the status of a critical international incident has little to do with the event itself and everything to do with the larger context within which it plays out.
The reason this particular murder has been elevated to the status of a critical international incident has little to do with the event itself and everything to do with the larger context within which it plays out.
Moving onto the second question … the reason so much information is being released to the public about what happened inside the interrogation room, as well as the movements and identities of the participants, is that doing so serves the interest of those doing the releasing. Information can only be coming from two sources: Turkish and Saudi authorities. Turkish authorities have been releasing details about Khashoggi’s timeline and that of the operatives arriving from Saudi Arabia, including CCTV and security footage, because they stand to gain from manipulating the incident. The Saudis (the only people alive who know what happened inside the room) have been leaking information to the press, breaching the extreme security of the consulate, because elements within the Saudi royal family stand to gain from the current Khashoggi narrative.
Now to the third and most critical question … the reason that removing crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is seemingly the most logical and appropriate response to the murder of Khashoggi is that removing the crown prince serves the interests of those who have been releasing the information about the incident – in effect driving the narrative.
Until three weeks ago, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was fêted as the “great reformer.” He was touted as young, energetic, bold, and visionary. Mohammed bin Salman granted women the right to drive, devised plans for the “city of the future” Neom; he sounded a more muscular tone against Iran, and wanted to recalibrate the Saudi relationship with its long time adversary, Israel. These “reformist” tendencies provoked some powerful adversaries.
The first of these is Turkey, whose autocratic ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said this of Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to “reform” the Middle East: “There is no moderate or immoderate Islam; Islam is one. The aim of using such terms is to weaken Islam.”
Erdoğan has no interest in seeing Saudi Arabia ruled by a moderate reformer (however relative that term may really be) after he has spent considerable energy on regressive strongman politics in his own country. The last thing Erdoğan thinks the region needs is an inspirational model for the people to yearn after.
The second is the head of the Saudi royal family and titular ruler, King Salman. According to reports early last month by Spanish newspaper Publico, “Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman’s position as a crown prince is facing precariousness as his father King Salman is looking to replace him.” In particular, the king is disturbed by the prince’s new perspective on Israel-Palestine. Indeed, on the 25th of September, Business Insider reported that the situation and palace intrigue had deteriorated to such an extent that, “Saudi Arabia’s ambitious new crown prince is reportedly hiding out on his superyacht, ‘fearing for his security’.”
The background noise has been compressed, filtered, and balanced. The Turks and the Saudis are driving the narrative, leaking to the press and planting information with willing and able media associates. The suggestion that the crown prince be removed has been building steam over the past week and shows no signs of dissipating. The removal of the crown prince directly serves the interests of the only two parties capable of providing the level of information the international community has been reveling in these past weeks.
So what does this amount to? Was Khashoggi killed by Saudi operatives in Istanbul? Almost certainly. Was Mohammed bin Salman involved? Was the crown prince aware of the interrogation? More than likely. These facts are not in dispute. What is, however, is the international smokescreen created by a nauseating partnership between the international media and political elites across the West and the Middle East. While the outrage is ostensibly about the brutality of an interrogation (gone wrong?), those that stand to benefit from the likely prescription (the deposition of the crown prince) care nothing about such things.
Let this be a warning to all those who endorse the prescribed course of action on the basis of international norms, human rights, freedom of the press, and the sanctity of life. Singly punishing Mohammed bin Salman and removing him from power is an act deliberately orchestrated to reassure a Turkish dictator and re-establish the perennial acrimonious inter-state relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
There is no morality in international relations. Whenever such a claim is made one ought to be immediately skeptical and ask: Cui bono? Whom does it benefit? Who profits from it?