The missing Saudi journalist and the dark side of MBS

The missing Saudi journalist and the dark side of MBS

A Saudi dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, went missing last week in Istanbul. His Turkish fiancée claimed he was last seen entering the Saudi consulate, but failed to emerge since. Then, it was speculated that he was killed at the consulate and believed his body was dismembered by a group of 15 Saudi officials who visited the consulate on the same day after they flew in from Saudi Arabia. In this view, the Saudi group finished the operation within two hours, carried his body in their luggage and returned to their country.

A friend of Khashoggi’s, who is an adviser to Turkey’s governing party, first claimed that it was an assassination carried out by the Saudi state. But he then changed his mind and said that perhaps it was the Saudi “deep state” behind the incident. It is not only the Turkish government circles, but the U.S. government and the president are also holding the Saudis to account for the mysterious disappearance of the journalist. They have asked for an explanation.

The story of the murder sounds a bit unreal, even by the standards of a thriller fiction. But the behavior of the Saudi officials too seems rather suspicious. It seems nobody knows what really happened, and I am the last person to comment on such a complex event since I am neither a forensic expert nor a reader of thrillers. Naturally, I am more interested in the political circumstances around the incident, especially because, as far as I know, Khashoggi is neither an ordinary dissident nor an ordinary journalist; he was deeply engaged in Saudi politics and worked for the government at some point.

It is not unusual for the U.S. to show interest in such an event, not only because it is unacceptable for any country to execute its dissidents, but also because Khashoggi is a U.S. resident and used to write for The Washington Post. Nevertheless, one expects more direct and better communication between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, given the fact that the Trump administration is even closer to Saudi Arabia since its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, took charge of the Saudi leadership. Nonetheless, we also know that these close relations are slightly strained due to various reasons. First of all, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who built a close alliance with the crown prince, has been the target of criticism for his increased role in foreign policy. Kushner’s peace plan for the Palestine question has also been discredited (especially after Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel) that the prince’s father, King Salman, withdrew public support for the plan. Last but not the least we have learnt from Khashoggi’s American journalist friend Thomas L. Friedman that “the prince had a dark side.”

Friedman, in a piece for the New York Times on Oct. 10, stated that since the Saudi journalist “had been inside the government” he knew what was happening within and that the prince needed a lot of coaching, but was limited to a small circle. Friedman thinks that his Saudi friend had recently started believing that “M.B.S.’s dark side was completely taking over.” It was also “leaked to” Friedman by “people close to the Saudi crown prince” that “M.B.S. has undertaken a series of ill-considered steps… had some hard-line advisers who were urging him to follow the China model,” which is thought to be more assertive. Friedman notes the “deepening pattern by M.B.S. on the advice of hard-liners around him” to prioritize security issues. He even advises U.S. policy-makers that “leaders actually need us to draw redlines for them, too, so they can tell their own hotheads and extremists, ‘Hey, I am with you — but the Americans won’t let me do that.’”

As the missing journalist was one of those (including U.S. liberals) concerned about the current Saudi leadership, Trump, too, seems to be convinced and/or obliged to blow up the issue.