Jamal Khashoggi went missing on 2 October after entering the Saudi Embassy in Ankara. His fiancee was left waiting outside the embassy entrance. That much is fact… and only that much. Turkish authorities, including Turkish Intelligence, believe Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured, murdered and dismembered by a Saudi assassination squad sent by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). They say there is video and audio evidence of this. Pretty damning if true. The Saudis claim Khashoggi left the Embassy under his own power shortly after he entered. If that’s the case, where is he? Perhaps the Saudis snatched him and whisked him off to Riyadh. That's possible, but so is the grim prospect of a Saudi hit team torturing and dismembering an enemy of MbS. My gut tells me that’s exactly what happened.
But let’s put this in perspective. The Saudis have arrested maybe hundreds of their writers, journalists and clerics. The Saudis chop heads. They chop hands. They lock up and torture members of their own royal family. It's their nature. A lot of countries come down hard on their enemies. They even whack their enemies, including their own citizens. Obama whacked Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone. I bet that dismembered his ass. And the USG declared that a righteous kill. So, the torturing and dismembering of Khashoggi as horrible as it is (and it is horrendous), is not without precedent in the game of nations.
How did Khashoggi get on the wrong side of MbS? He was once a favorite of the Saudi royal family. In 2017, Khashoggi became disillusioned with MbS and his promises of reform and modernization. In September of that year, he announced his break with MbS in a piece for the Washington Post. He remained a vocal critic of MbS since then and recently broke with Saudi policy in Yemen. The final straw may have been Khashoggi’s work to launch an NGO, called Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), to boost democracy and human rights in the Arab world. The idea that this criticism and resistance was coming from a respected insider was too much for the notoriously thin-skinned MbS to stomach. Thus the fifteen man snatch/assassination team (with bone saw) was dispatched from Riyadh to Ankara.
Reactions to the disappearance of Khashoggi may threaten MbS's plans for an economic renaissance in the Kingdom. Richard Branson pulled back from two projects, a billion dollar investment in Virgin Galactic and a project to develop Red Sea tourism. Many CEOs have said they will pull out of MbS’s futuristic mega city project. A number of journalists and media CEOs have also pulled out of a major investment conference in Riyadh later this month. However Steve Mnuchin, Dina Powell and Thomas Barrack still plan on attending this event. This is in line with the Trump administration’s reaction to the Khashoggi affair.
Trump’s reaction can be summed up in this one quote from a recent White House photo op.
“ I will not be in favor of stopping a country from spending 110 billion dollars which is an all time record and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money because all they have to do is say that’s okay we don’t have to buy it from Boeing. We don’t have to buy it from Lockheed. We don’t have to buy it from Raytheon and all these companies. We’ll buy it from Russia. We’ll buy it from China. So what good does that do us? There are all these other things we can do. Khashoggi is not a US citizen, is that right? He's a permanent resident, okay. We don’t like it. We don’t like it even a little bit, but as to whether we should stop 110 billion from being spent in this country, knowing they have four or five alternatives, two very good alternatives, that would not be acceptable to me."
This is what we should expect with a businessman as President, a laser focus on profit with no concern for other factors. MbS knows this and acts accordingly. This 110 billion arms deal is from Trump’s first overseas trip as President to Saudi Arabia back in May 2017. This deal is similar to Trump’s deal with Kim Jong Un to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons. Neither is likely to come to fruition anytime soon. Congress is in no mood to approve any more of those arms sales and seems to be willing to work in a bipartisan manner to ensure further deals do not go through. They also seem ready to halt support for the war in Yemen. We’ll see how that shakes out.
There is also the matter of optics for Trump. The relationship between the royal family and the Trump family is unnaturally close. There is still no US Ambassador in Riyadh. The relationship seems to flow directly through Jared Kushner and MbS. There are also sizable Saudi investments in various arms of the Trump Organization. To be fair, the royal family has done this with many US presidents. Look at Saudi investments in the both the Bushes and the Clintons.
I do not think Trump can wait out the Khashoggi affair until it fades from the headlines. The growing Congressional distaste for the war in Yemen will keep the pot stirred as will the Media for losing one of their own. Add to that the still unhealed wound of 9/11. Last March a US District Court judge in Manhattan ruled that 9/11 victims' lawsuits against Saudi Arabia under the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) have standing and will go to trial. This is bad timing for MbS and the rest of the royal family.
I have long thought our relationship with the Saudis not to be in our best interests. My first assignment after being pulled into the Defense HUMINT headquarters was as the Regional Desk Officer for the Arabian Peninsula. After working for years against the Soviet and Russian target, I discovered what a hostile place the Peninsula was for people in my line of work. The Saudis are not our friends or even allies. It is as cold a transactional relationship as can be. I don’t want war. I don’t want the royal family to be violently overthrown. What may come out of that chaos could be far worse. But we shouldn’t be enabling them to the extent we have done so for decades.