Will Khashoggi’s demise at least help end the Yemen war?

Mohammad Bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud

The debate about the forensic aspect of the Saudi murder has been exhaustive and repetitive. It is time to change the focus.

Riyadh is not ready to assume any responsibility for the death of the Saudi Washington Post opinion writer (a permanent US resident) Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul’s consulate. The Saudi Royalty may consider the death of their journalist an accident. In an abduction that went wrong?

Despite growing international conviction that the Kingdom must “own” this crime, King Salman and his son, Crown Prince bin Salman, still, deny that they had been aware of the crime in advance. But even if the Saudi rulers had not known of the plot, the perpetrators must have expected to “reward” the leadership with the news of their success in their (supposedly self-assigned) mission. Even if this were a separate self-assigned covert mission, the King and his son would still be morally and legally responsible.

Regardless of how it happened, the murder took place in Saudi custody, and in the background of a lamentable political landscape. The significance of this crime deserves to be analyzed in a wider context: first, a record of state terror; second, widespread human rights abuse in the region; third, a reckless regime trapped; and fourth, exposure of a dysfunctional relationship between Washington and Riyadh.

Abducting an innocent Saudi writer in the Turkish consulate of Istanbul is in itself a state crime. Washington’s legal consultants could have advised the Crown Prince to make the best out of a bad situation. “Death by accident” is one way of sanitizing murder. Regrettably, President Trump favors the least likely forensic scenario.

Let us now move on to the regional context of murder. The calm of the Arab media regarding the murder of Khashoggi is a reminder that the people of the Middle East may have become too tolerant of state cruelty. Khashoggi was a moderate critic of a potentially failing regime; he paid with his life by expressing doubts about leadership and reform. It is a shame that silencing thinkers with a “final solution” has become a very familiar practice. It is also perturbing that public reaction in America to the ugly Saudi war in Yemen, and to Washington’s participation in it, pales in comparison to America’s current outcry for Khashoggi. Yemen is another “missing body” in the White House agenda.

The third contextual element of the Khashoggi story is the Saudi predicament: it is time for the Kingdom to face a sober reality. This Kingdom has managed to protect its rulers from a popular uprising. The Saudis have not only evaded rebellions; they have, with their oil money, managed to rapidly climb up the power ladder in the region. They lead fancy coalitions against terrorists, rebuke Canada for meddling, threaten Iran- a regional power, mediate questionable peace terms with Israel, fund rebels from a distance in Syria, send troops to suppress revolt in Bahrain, isolate Qatar for difference of opinion, break up the Gulf Cooperation Council, discipline Lebanese leaders, and launch a ruthless war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

But now the world has suddenly changed for Riyadh. International diplomats are nervous. Foreign investors are hesitant. Three Washington lobbying firms have dropped the Kingdom as a client. US Congress is upset. The Arab Spring may be approaching Riyadh in a peculiar way, not through street protest, but through international isolation.

The Arab Spring is not only about democracy; national awakening involves readjustment of relations with powerful states. Arab countries often assume the position of a “client-state.”

Consider the relation between Saudi Arabia and Washington. At high cost, Riyadh purchases extra sophisticated arms, in large quantities, from Washington. The inability of Saudis to operate the American purchased arms has necessitated the active participation of the US military in the Yemen War. It is more serious than that: the entire national security of the Saudi regime and the wider Arab Gulf region is in the hands of Washington. In return, the US reaps immense economic and strategic gains. The US employs tens of thousands of Americans to “help” Arabs fight Arabs.

Is there any source of light in this tunnel? The US Congress is now considering to re-examine relations between Washington and Riyadh. Given US midterm election pressures, extreme bipartisan tension, a business obsessed president and a powerful military lobby, it is unrealistic to expect radical reform in US- Saudi relations. However, if US congressional pressure builds up momentum King Salman may have to reconsider internal readjustment of power distribution: all eyes are on the future of a dominant and reckless crown prince.

A more likely outcome is ending the Yemen War. Current Saudi humiliation is bound to soften positions. There is some bipartisan momentum to stop this war which has turned out to be genocide in progress: a third of Yemen starving, cholera spreading and the economy collapsing.

The Khashoggi story must not be about how a murder was committed but what the events call for. America’s moral standing is closely tied to this case.