Spearhead Analysis – 25.10.2018
By Fatima Ayub
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
Jamal Khashoggi is dead and Saudi Arabia has found itself at the cusp of one of the biggest state level controversies since its implication in the attacks of 9/11. The enduring myth of the ‘young Arab reformer’ has been in part shattered, but the death of the myth does not serve as a shock but only a morose reminder of the long and bloodied trajectory of the corridors of unbridled power, dissent and autocracy that has been the status quo in the Middle East for the past century.
When Muhammad Bin Salman succeeded his father King Salman bin in 2016, Western governments watched with hope – the kind of idealism confined only for liberals democracies watching from afar. The people of Saudi Arabia familiar with the monarchial dictates of their state have little choice or say in the leadership of their country. However with MBS, the appeal of a new, charismatic 33-year old Prince won over many with the promise of new blood spearheading the modernization of the country social and economic progress.
In a country where two-thirds of the population is aged under 29, youth unemployment is more than 25 per cent and women are still demonized as the ‘other’, legally inferior sex. It was against this backdrop that Prince Mohammed wooed young Saudis and enchanted western politicians and executives by promising an aggressive transformation of not just the lagging economy but a more secular, tolerant society.
The enduring myth of the young Saudi reformer
As time would slowly reveal the new-age leadership set on old methods of violence, the young legacy of MBS has too found itself in the likes of similar sons inheriting positions of power; Syria’s Bashar-ul-Assad (son of President Hafez), Libya’s Seif al-Islam (son of Gen Muammer Gaddafi), Egypt’s Gamal Mubarak (son of Hosni, the former president)
Youth as it has come to be known cannot be seen as a proxy for progressiveness. The current conundrum is another revelation to the world that promises by Middle Eastern dynasts with well-slicked global PR campaigns to convince the world that they are the only hope for their region are too easy to believe when much of the evidence on ground suggests the opposite.
The children of dictators might look slicker and more open-minded than their parents, but when their position is threatened they will defend it with the same violence as their fathers.
The crackdown on voices of dissent is not novel in this part of the world. Initially hailed as the revolutionary liberalizer of the old Saudi social structures, MBS rolled back some restrictions on women including a long-standing ban on female drivers, launched economic reforms, allowed cinemas to open for the first time in decades, and imprisoned some of his most powerful royal relatives in an anti-corruption drive.
But social and economic transformation have gone hand-in-hand with a tightening of political controls, as the crown prince has made clear he wants the new Saudi Arabia to remain an absolute monarchy, shaped only by him.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabian prosecutors are seeking the death sentence for five human rights activists including prominent Shia activist couple who are to be tried in the country’s terrorism tribunal even though according to Human Rights Watch, the charges faced solely relate to peaceful activism. In July, 2018 the campaign to muzzle critics was not just seen as domestic policy. Saudi Arabia dramatically cut all ties with Canada after the country’s foreign minister tweeted a call for the release of two jailed activists.
However, while the world has watched and MBS has continued to blatantly brave through his unilateral reformation of the monarchy, tightening his hold on power as he does so, the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi kill team dispatched to a foreign country on MBS’s orders is too harrowing a news for even the vast array of Western supporters of the Crown Prince to accept.
After more than two weeks of denials, Riyadh admitted on 20th October that Khashoggi died in the diplomatic mission, but said his death was the result of a “fist fight”.
Foreign policy analysts cite that the development of the story of this killing will pave way for a recalibration of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the world. There is outrage, rebuke and international pressure on all governments to reevaluate their dealings with the House of Saud in light of its alarming actions.
However, a quick observatory glance at the influence – political and economic- that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wields over global politics today seems to suggest that no matter the outage at the Khashoggi incident today, it will soon be business as usual with Saudi Arabia.
One, this is not the first time that boundaries of blood and life have been overstepped to accommodate Royal decrees.
The Saudi-led war in Yemen has ground on for more than three years, killing thousands of civilians and creating what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But it took the crisis over the apparent murder of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate two weeks ago for the world to take notice.
The Saudis have previously barred foreign journalists from northern Yemen, scene of the biggest airstrike atrocities and the deepest hunger.
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have led a military coalition in a war aimed at ousting the Houthis and restoring an internationally recognized government.
The conflict is mostly unknown to Americans, whose military has backed the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign with intelligence, bombs and refueling, leading to accusations of complicity in possible war crimes.
But early promises of a swift victory have given way to a bloody stalemate, while the war has inflicted a catastrophic toll on Yemenis, including widespread hunger and the worst cholera epidemic in history.
Secondly, foreign investors and CEOs may avoid the Ryadh summit but will not say No to Riyadh’s money.
When Mohammed bin Salman was touring the UK and US earlier this year, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia – and its de facto ruler – could have relied almost exclusively on businesses backed by the kingdom’s money.
The vast oil wealth of Saudi Arabia and its royal family has been spread liberally around the world in recent years. Many of their overseas assets are owned via the mammoth $93bn Vision Fund and current state foreign assets range now from steel to Silicon Valley.
Post Khashoggi, it is widely assumed that the international investment component of the masterplan is at risk, due to the allegations upon the Crown Prince of his direct orders to murder and mutilate the journalist in foreign territory.
Suprisingly, senior ministers from Britain and France pulled out of the event along with chief executives or chairmen of about a dozen big financial firms, such as JP Morgan Chase and HSBC, and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde.
Unsurprisingly however, the meeting went ahead with many global firms and their executives in attendance.
Many in the audience of over 2,000 clapped or cheered as the prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, appeared on stage of the three-day conference. smiling as he sat down next to Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
And while it is true that some big names from the world’s business community were absent, ‘Davos in the desert’, as it is dubbed, was by no means a wash-out.
“Significant reputational risks” as critics of Western companies on doing business with Saudi Arabia have overlooked the logic of how, to any state, the decision not to attend the conference is separate to the decision on investing in Saudi Arabia in the longer term.
There is realism in the idea that financial companies simple can’t walk away from such a lucrative source of investment and business. Saudi organisers sought to portray it was business as usual, announcing 12 “mega deals” worth more than $50bn in oil, gas, infrastructure and other sectors.
Particularly, the Saudi’s biggest trade and defense partner, the United States is well aware of the danger of China or Russia stepping in to leverage their positions with the Saudis if the US were to pull out of any lucrative economic deals. The decision for example of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to attend the conference was hailed as pragmatic, rather than political as the country’s current budgetary shortfall is in the region of $12bn – twice the size of the last IMF loan in 2013.
‘We’re desperate’ PM Khan stated and the Saudis have reportedly responded with $3 billion (AED 11 billion) to Pakistan.
Third, Saudi Arabia has historically relied on its oil-rich influence, power and geopolitical standing to force its neighbouring states and leadership to tow its line, no matter what the cost.
Analysts agree that the seeming indifference to the fate that has befallen Khashoggi and the timid support that some governments such as Yemen’s government-in-exile and Lebanon’s Saad Hariri have expressed for Saudi Arabia is a testament to the influence Riyadh holds in the region.
Last December, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned abruptly during an impromptu visit to Riyadh in what was described as the abduction of a sovereign country’s head of government. The UAE, Bahrain and Egypt joined Saudi Arabia in imposing the land, sea and air blockade on Qatar in June 2017.
Thus, for Egypt and Lebanon, calling the likely murder of a journalist what it is – atrocious – is to invite punishment from a state that could easily bully them into compliance.
However, the Middle East has historically borne Arab governments in the past century with little to no political discourse. It is not Saudi Arabia alone that is guilty of its morbid human rights violations. Syria’s Bashar-ul-Assad who chemically bombed his own nation or for example the case of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who is known to have disappeared, persecuted and killed hundreds of political activists, as well as banned hundreds of human rights advocates and activists from travelling outside the country.
Moreover, there is an even more pungent disregard for human life in war. The Saudi air force, with U.S. assistance in the form aerial refueling, targeted civilian infrastructure, farmland, factories, and, most recently, a bus load of Yemeni children this year.
It is most telling that after the bus bombing, which killed 40 young children, MbS was reported to have said in a meeting with military brass, “we want to leave a big impact on the consciousness of Yemeni generations. We want their children, women, and even their men to shiver whenever the name of Saudi Arabia is mentioned.”
As for the future of US-Saudi relations, it is overly simplistic to think that the connections between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia i.e. $24 billion import-export exchange per year will be affected by the Khashoggi debacle.
While the Trump administration has signaled its wariness about any fallout from the Khashoggi case leading to any rupture in US-Saudi relations, pressure has mostly come from Congress.
However, there is too much rage and not enough analysis of why ties with the Saudis have historically proven so strong.
As US sanctions on Iran’s oil and gas exports go into effect next month, the Trump administration is particularly desperate to avoid the Saudis refusing to pump more oil, which it fears could raise gas prices on voters and threaten Trump’s potential re-election chances.
Asked why the US seemed to give Saudi Arabia the benefit of the doubt, given the preponderance of signs that there was high-level Saudi involvement, Pompeo said “it is reasonable to give them a handful of days more to complete it, so they get it right, so that it’s thorough and complete.”
“Those are important elements of US national policy that are in American’s best interest and we just need to make sure that we are mindful of that as we approach decisions that the United States government will take when we learn all of the facts associated with whatever may have taken place,” Pompeo said.
It appears that Saudi Arabia will successfully manage to get away with this episode of murder, whatever the size of the diplomatic dent in the reputation of its Crown Prince and his questionable leadership.
It is worth recalling that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has been deeply troubling for decades. Yet the global world leaders and business giants have seldom raised public concern. The scrutiny of the Khashoggi incident while a disastrous episode for the reign of the young MBS in 2018, too shall pass.
Two pressing questions however remain; whether there will be another episode and whether the world will similarly allow it to simply pass a second time.