Fact and Fiction in the Khashoggi Affair

Fri, Oct 19, 2018 - 8:49am

Originally published at Geopolitical Futures

The journalist’s killing could call into question the U.S.-Saudi alliance.

Yesterday, my colleague Xander Snyder wrote an excellent piece that placed the Khashoggi affair into the broader context of Saudi-Turkish-U.S. relations. I recommend reading it in full, but the short version is this: The United States needs Saudi Arabia for a variety of reasons, foremost of which is to prevent Iran from expanding its power any more than it already has. This will probably trump the short-term hysteria that the assassination has engendered.

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There are, however, a few points on which I would like to elaborate. The first is the victim himself. Jamal Khashoggi was high-born and well-connected. He was the nephew of Adnan Khashoggi, a prominent and powerful arms dealer in the 1980s. He used to work for Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence. Before 9/11, he conducted an interview with Osama bin Laden, someone who didn’t do interviews often.

He went on to become a crusading journalist resolutely opposed to the Saudi government. I don’t know if his opposition to Riyadh is what caused his death. I do know that many journalists write critically of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman every day, and most are not (allegedly) tortured, murdered and dismembered in a consulate in Turkey.

The next point relates to Mohammad bin Salman, someone who has made a lot of enemies at such a young age. He effectively rules the country but is not technically its king. He came to power by jumping the lines of succession in a bloodless coup. To some Saudis, he is a radical reformer who wants to overhaul the economy, let women drive, and so on. To others, he hasn’t gone nearly far enough. Khashoggi certainly falls into the latter camp. But here again, there are many Saudi reformist expatriates who do not die gruesome deaths.

The most important point, one that I have often written about, concerns the dynamics of the Middle East. After the Islamic State retreated, Iran began to consolidate its power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. To counter its expansion, the U.S. is leading an anti-Iranian coalition that includes Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others.

Washington is, moreover, applying substantial economic pressure on Iran at a time when Iran is already in economic disarray. Given that pressure, Iran is being weakened at home, and we would expect it to be weakened in its westward push as well. Still, for Saudi Arabia, participating in the alliance is not without its drawbacks. A public alignment between Israel and Saudi Arabia would, of course, frighten Iran, but it would also enrage some of the conservatives in Saudi Arabia. (The fact that the Saudis have aligned with Israel before, albeit quietly, does not mean that they would not lash out if MBS did so again publicly. Plausible deniability must always be maintained.)

And so, Khashoggi’s alleged death, regardless of who would have killed him or why, creates a strategic problem. The countries that seek to contain Iran require close coordination, most importantly between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Now there is pressure on Washington to end this very coordination. There is some pressure on MBS, too, since relations with the U.S. are a cornerstone of Saudi national security, necessary as to resist its archrival Iran. In short, if the alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia collapses, so too do the alliances against Iran.

There is much we at GPF don’t know about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. There is probably much we never will know. It’s not our business to label MBS a noble reformer or a deranged murderer. We traffic in facts, and so what we know is this: Whatever happened in the consulate in Turkey has put in place a sequence of events that could upend the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Whether it actually does, given everyone’s shared interests, is another matter entirely.

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