The Case of Khashoggi: The Middle East’s Pandora’s Box
Written by Steven Tibbitts
The already turbulent politics of the Arab Gulf are being wracked by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, allegedly after being tortured (Kempe 2018; Alsharif et al. 2018). Responsibility for the murder may reach all the way up to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, also referred to as MbS (Riedel 2018; Kirkpatrick, Malachy, Hubbard, and Botti 2018; El-Ghobashy and Fahim 2018). Different countries are experiencing diverse effects of the situation.
Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia has admitted to killing the journalist, though the Saudi version of events has changed repeatedly from denying Khashoggi’s death to most recently admitting that there was a “premeditated” operation to kill him (Alsharif et al. 2018, Asharq al-Awsat 2018). Khashoggi is only the most recent in a line of Saudi dissidents to go missing outside the Kingdom, possibly reflecting a larger crackdown on critics both in and outside of Saudi Arabia (Razek and Madi 2018; Pfeffer 2018).
The Saudis are trying to salvage MbS’s reputation, especially given that multiple members of the 15-man Saudi hit squad have direct and potentially damning ties with him (Kirkpatrick, Malachy, Hubbard, and Botti 2018; Reuters 2018). Several people involved were arrested by Saudi forces, but one of them, Saud al-Qahtani, is a key advisor of MbS (Riedel 2018; Reuters 2018). Qahtani’s involvement points to a high probability of MbS’s involvement in the matter, while his arrest may signal that now not even MbS’s closest advisors are safe (Riedel 2018).
Pro-Saudi news provide op-eds suggesting that the focus on Khashoggi emboldens Iran and highlighting MbS’s economic reforms, including the hosting of the “Davos in the Desert” economic conference despite a large boycott due to the murder (Al-Rashed 2018; Al-dossary 2018).
United States: The Khashoggi murder puts the US in a precarious diplomatic position. The killing of a journalist with American residency in a consulate has drawn the ire of the American public, and it shakes the idea of MbS representing a new, moderate brand of leadership (Pfeffer 2018). However, American companies’ arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the gradual withdrawal of the US from the Middle East has made allies like Saudi Arabia indispensable in achieving regional objectives (Dobbins 2018; Ghitis 2018).
The US has revoked the visas of 21 Saudis believed to be involved, and this week CIA director Gina Haspel listened to Turkish intelligence’s tape recordings of the killing and has briefed President Trump on the matter (Kirby 2018; Alsharif et al. 2018). The President has offered mixed signals on the matter, and whether or not the US will adjust its alliance with Saudi Arabia or employ more punishing measures is yet to be seen.
Turkey: Turkey is the kingmaker in the Khashoggi case. It is the Turkish police and intelligence that are providing most of the evidence in the murder, and both they and President Erdogan give grisly details of the murder to state news (Kempe 2018). Turkey is using the opportunity of a Saudi scandal to increase its own international influence and improve its troubled relations with the West (Ghitis 2018; Stacey 2018; Kempe 2018). Erdogan is maneuvering to essentially pin Saudi Arabia in a corner without cutting off ties with the nation (Lowen 2018).
Qatar: Qatari-sponsored news outlets, historically anti-Saudi, are targeting Saudi Arabia strongly during this affair. Khashoggi’s death may offer Qatar more ammunition to discredit the Saudi-led embargo against Qatar.
Iran: Like Qatar, Iran is using the Khashoggi scandal to attack Saudi Arabia and President Trump, with President Rouhani accusing President Trump of clandestinely approving Khashoggi’s murder (Al-Monitor 2018).
Other Western Countries: The European Union has condemned the murder, but Britain and France have not chosen to cut off arms sales to the country (El-Ghobashy and Fahim 2018).
Jordan: Interviews on the ground* in Jordan have provided varied responses from Jordanians. One professor of international relations at Jordan University told his class, in the presence of a Saudi consulate worker, that while the murder was horrific, there were more pressing issues occurring such as the Syrian conflict and Palestine. Moreover, he said, the Middle East still needs Saudi Arabia as its regional leader, despite this mistake. Other Jordanians have expressed a certain level of apathy towards the issue, while for others it confirms already strongly-held negative views towards the Kingdom and its perceived harshness.
*Interviews conducted by the author
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