Culpability and Recalibration: MBS and the Killing of Jamal Khashoggi

It was a brutal way to go, and it had the paw prints of the highest authorities.  On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian insider turned outsider, was murdered by a squad of 15 men from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  He was dismembered and quite literally cancelled in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

This state sanctioned killing was a vile, clumsy effort against a journalist and critic of a person who has come to be affectionately known in brown nosing circles as MBS, the ambitious, bratty Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  Since then, every effort has been made on his part, and his followers, to repel suggestions of guilt or involvement.

It is worth remembering how the narratives were initially developed.  First, the killing was denied as a libel against the kingdom.  “Mr Khashoggi,” claimed an official statement from the Saudi authorities, “visited the consulate to request paperwork related to his marital status and exited shortly thereafter.”  Then, his death was accepted, but deemed the result of a dreadful accident in which the men in question had overstepped.  The death subsequently became the work of a blood thirsty gang of sadists who had acted on their own volition or, as US President Donald Trump called them, “rogue killers”.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir was a model of dissembling grace, telling news networks that it had all been a “tremendous mistake” which the Crown Prince was “not aware” of.  “We don’t know, in terms of details, how.  We don’t know where the body is.”

Statements of this nature run the risk of being totally implausible while also being revealing.  It certainly showed a level of audacity.  But in the exposure of the operation, the Saudi intelligence services also risked looking amateurish and startlingly incompetent.  As a reward for their activities, 11 of the crew were tried by the Saudi government, eight of whom were convicted of murder.  Their names have never been released.

Investigations into the murder are generally of the same view: the operation was authorised by the Crown Prince or certainly someone in the highest reaches of the Saudi government.  The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnès Callamard, thought as much.  In June 2019, the rapporteur published a report finding that the execution “was the result of elaborate planning involving extensive coordination and significant human and financial resources.  It was overseen, planned and endorsed by high-level officials. It was premeditated.”

The latest publication to stack the shelves of the Kingdom’s culpability comes in the form of a declassified US intelligence report submitted to Congress by the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.  The authors of the short document are clear about the lines of responsibility.  “We assess,” goes the Executive Summary, “that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”  This conclusion was arrived at given the role of the Crown Prince in “the decision making in the Kingdom”, the participation “of a key adviser” along with members of bin Salman’s protective detail, and his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”

Sombrely, the compilers of the report can only state the obvious.  “Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”

The details of the report corroborate other findings.  The team sent to Istanbul had seven members of Muhammad bin Salman’s protective guard, the Rapid Intervention Force.  It would have been hard to envisage the participation of these men in an operation without approval of the Crown Prince.  Members of the squad also included those from the Saudi Centre for Studies and Media Affairs (CSMARC) based at the Royal Court.

The only note of slight uncertainty to come in the report is the state of mind Saudi officials were in terms of harming Khashoggi.  It was clear that the Crown Prince saw the journalist “as a threat to the Kingdom and more broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him.”  What was less clear that “how far in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him.”

The neglected, and no less obscene aspect of the Khashoggi affair apart from his extrajudicial killing, is the business as usual approach taken by various powers towards Saudi Arabia.  President Trump was merely the frankest of them all, not wishing to cloud lucrative weapons deals and the ongoing security relationship.  “The United States,” he promised in a statement, “intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”

The Biden administration prefers dissimulation and forced sincerity.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken saw the need to “recalibrate” rather than “rupture” the relations between the two countries.  “The [US] relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual.”  It was sufficient for the US to illuminate the issue of Khashoggi’s killing.  “I think this report speaks for itself.”

Just to show he has been busy recalibrating away, Blinken announced a visa restriction policy named after the slain Saudi – the Khashoggi Ban.  Some 76 Saudi nationals have received bans for having “been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”

Ahead of the report’s release, President Joe Biden called his Saudi counterpart, King Salman, making much of human rights and the rule of law.  But doing so did not mean holding the Crown Prince to account for his misdeeds.  What mattered was “the longstanding partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia”.  The Royals, to that end, can rest easy.  There will be no substantial change in the arrangements between Washington and Riyadh, merely a heavy layering of cosmetics. That’s recalibration for you.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: [email protected]


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