Spearhead Analysis – 01.01.2019
By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
“I can’t breathe”. These are said to be the heartbreaking last words of journalist Jamal Khashoggi before he was murdered in cold blood by a team of Saudi operatives at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey. His body was then ruthlessly cut up into pieces to be disposed of, while the perpetrators of this crime calmly boarded a plane back to their home country. It seemed that the Saudi’s did not fear any kind of repercussions for this heinous act, and perhaps they might have gotten away with it as well, had it not been for Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.
Cengiz had accompanied Khashoggi to the Saudi embassy and even though her fiancé assured her that all would be well, she remained outside the building for the next ten hours, waiting for him to return. When she was certain that something horrible must have happened, she informed the Turkish authorities, who took prompt action and demanded that the Saudi embassy cooperate with the ensuing investigation as well. It was only after they swept the premises and checked the security tapes that the horrifying truth came to light.
Saudi officials were quick to deny any involvement in the murder, despite the overwhelming evidence pointing to the contrary, and claimed that Khashoggi had left the embassy within a few minutes or an hour after entering it. However, they did not count on the presence of Cengiz, who had been waiting in a car outside its premises and who testified that she did not see her finance exit the building at any point during the day.
After continuously denying the murder over the next few weeks, amid severe international pressure, Saudi state officials finally conceded that Khashoggi had in fact been killed on the orders of a ‘rogue’ intelligence officer within the confines of the Saudi embassy. However, they were quick to divert blame away from the country’s young and ambitious crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman or MBS, and vowed to bring the main culprits to justice as soon as possible.
The revelation that a Saudi ‘hit squad’ had basically travelled to another country and murdered a prominent journalist and Saudi dissident with such ease drew the ire of leaders from across the globe. There were calls to cut off all diplomatic ties with the Saudi government, and the positive and liberal image that MBS had been trying to establish across the western world was shattered. Instead of a bright and progressive young leader, MBS now appeared to be a power hungry and calculating despot, who had the gall to outright kill any that dared to speak against his regime, both within and outside the borders of Saudi Arabia.
Several countries decided to impose sanctions on the kingdom, and despite the reluctance of Donald Trump in criticizing the Saudi leaders, Congress decided to approve of a measure that made MBS directly responsible for the death of Khashoggi. This was in answer to reports that such a high level and dangerous mission would never have been approved without the express permission of MBS and other high ranking Saudi officials. Congress also voted to withdraw its troops from Yemen, in another blow to the kingdom, with Senator Chris Murphy stating that “The United States has said, through the Senate, that our support for the Saudi coalition is no longer open-ended”.
These moves were obviously a cause for great concern in Saudi Arabia and prompted swift action from the state. To shift blame away from MBS, several arrests were made of people alleged to have carried out the murder in secret, while the cabinet went through a reshuffle. In order to deal with the considerable international fallout from Khashoggi’s murder, the Foreign Minister of the country, Adel al-Jubeir, was demoted, and former Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf was appointed to lead the Foreign Ministry in his stead. While the state categorically denied that Jubeir had been reprimanded for his poor handling of the Khashoggi murder fallout, many believe he was made a scapegoat, and that MBS had been looking for a valid excuse to sideline him anyways.
While the cabinet reshuffle was called a routine exercise by the state and a direct result of the Khashoggi murder by the international media, after a closer look, it was nothing more than another attempt by MBS to consolidate his power in the kingdom. Not only did most of his close allies retain their seats, some were given added powers, while his close friend Prince Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz was put in charge of the National Guard, prompting reports that perhaps MBS wished to have a stronger hold the force tasked to protect the royal household.
Even though investigations are still underway in to the Khashoggi murder, it is clear that it has had no real impact on the designs and schemes of the Saudi state. While they made certain moves that have given the impression that great change was underway in the country, in reality, it has helped MBS tighten his grip over the affairs of the oil rich middle eastern kingdom.
There is much criticism internationally over the war in Yemen and the sufferings of civilians and women and children. The murder of Kashoggi has focused attention on the Kingdom and people are waiting to see the result of the Saudi investigation. If the episode was indeed a rogue operation gone wrong, then proper action against the culprits is warranted.
MBS remains popular with the young and progressive elements in the Kingdom. People still have expectations of a liberal regime within the country. Saudi Arabia needs to exit from Yemen and resolve the crisis with Qatar. It needs to consolidate internally and work on its international relationships.