Analysis & Opinions - Agence Global

The potential massive consequences of the Khashoggi murder

| Nov. 06, 2018

BEIRUT — Our continued focus on resolving the facts of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month is important for four reasons that will impact the fate of the Middle East and U.S. policies there for years to come. We will know soon if the killers are held accountable or the world loses attention, succumbs to the allure of the fortunes of oil and gas, and leaves largely unchanged the current power structures of our region. Which of those routes we take will determine whether we generate a more decent, participatory, accountable, and just region, or fall into a death maelstrom of unchallenged and cruel autocracy where money and guns rule, and citizens enjoy neither rights nor humanity.

The first critical issue is the moral need to identify who ordered and conducted the Khashoggi assassination, hold the criminals accountable, and develop mechanisms that minimize such inhuman deeds in the future. If such a grotesque crime as this is allowed to pass unpunished, the dark quarters and busy killers and jailers of the Arab and Middle East region will continue their deathly deeds with total impunity — and almost always with the explicit or quiet support of major foreign powers like the U.S., UK, France, Russia, Iran and others.

The second important dynamic is the tiny window that has been opened into the shadowy world of decision-making inside Saudi Arabia (and in most other countries in the region, to be fair). For the first time in recent memory, intense discussions are taking place in world capitals to determine who inside the Saudi system did this deed and how to punish them, especially if a direct line of culpability to the office or the person of the Saudi crown prince is identified beyond doubt, including how the crown prince might be relieved of his authority. This has momentous implications in several realms. One is the unprecedented new levers of external accountability that could shape power inside the kingdom, and another is the consequences for regional political contests if the crown prince’s current Saudi domestic and regional policies should suddenly stall or disappear if he is diminished or dismissed.

This touches the third dynamic, which is the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. One part of this is the bilateral relationship where Washington must determine if it cares to do anything meaningful to show its disagreement with incidents like the Khashoggi murder, or, rather, if it is perfectly satisfied with a symbolic but meaningless slap on the wrist to the Saudi leadership and only some minor adjustments in Saudi policies.

The second, more significant, part of the U.S.-Saudi relationship ties the possibility of the crown prince’s wings being clipped, or he is retired, to the fate of Trumpian Washington’s fantastic grand strategy for Middle Eastern politics and pressures on several fronts simultaneously. This is because in the fantasy world of Kushner-Trump Middle East policy, Saudi Arabia (often in alliance with Israel) is the vital lynchpin around which revolve all major U.S. policies, of which four are paramount: a) the dreamland “deal of the century” for Israeli-Palestinian peace; b) the coordinated Arab-Israeli front to “roll back” Iran in the region; c) the Saudi-led coalition of Arab-Islamic states, with U.S. and foreign support, to fight terrorism (delusionally called the “Arab NATO”); and, d) the policy since 2012, in the wake of the Arab Uprisings, to support autocratic Arab governments and ruling elites that kill any movement towards freedom of expression, participatory and pluralistic politics, free elections, accountability of power, citizenship rights, and an independent civil society. All four of these American core policies across the Middle East region will come crashing down if the Saudi crown prince comes crashing down, which would vilify some Saudis as criminals, and certify the Trump-Kushner team as immature and greedy fools.

The fourth and perhaps most interesting aspect of the post-Khashoggi murder dynamics is the face-off between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This is both a vicious battle for ideological, cultural, and geo-strategic dominance in the region, and also an old-fashioned negotiation between two wily bazaar merchants trying to outwit each other. In the month since Khashoggi’s murder, the Turks have seriously outwitted the Saudis by using numerous tools in their deep reservoir of nuance, tactics, bargaining, and statecraft that have accumulated in that materially and culturally fertile Anatolian Plain for the past, oh, 4,000 years; while the Saudis have looked like hapless amateurs, as they offer lie after lie and keep changing their story, thereby totally destroying their credibility and stature, and opening themselves up to the sorts of pressures on their internal governance system that are now being examined by many foreign quarters, including the U.S. Congress.

The repercussions of the Khashoggi murder may be with us for years to come, but their full scope and impact will only be known after the facts of the case are verified beyond a doubt, which is what the entire world now should keep working to achieve — because the murder of an innocent man is unacceptable, as is the virtual imprisonment and immobilization of 400 million Arabs who continue to strive for their rights as human beings and citizens of their countries.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow, adjunct professor of journalism, and Journalist in Residence at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative. He can be followed @ramikhouri

Copyright ©2018 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

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For Academic Citation: Khouri, Rami.“The potential massive consequences of the Khashoggi murder.” Agence Global, November 6, 2018.