Journalist’s Brutal Murder Reflects the New Norm in Saudi Arabia
US and Israeli acquiescence have only emboldened Mohammed bin Salman
The fractious House of Saud, with its approximately 15,000 royal members and an estimated combined wealth of over $1.5 trillion, has always been beset with palace intrigues, conspiracies and plots. The sheer muscle and influence exercised through its sovereign wealth, energy resources and the custodianship of the two holy mosques ensure that the Saudi state remains pivotal in global and regional affairs.
An 18th century pact between the regional emir Muhammad bin Saud and an Islamic preacher, Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, led in time to a rigidly puritanical and exclusivist strain of Islam, often described as Salafism or Wahhabism. Funded by its oil riches, the Saudi state splurged tens of billions of dollars on the global promotion of this particular school of Islam, with generous donations, scholarships and investments – creating the phenomenon known as ‘petro-Islam’.
The Saudi rulers intentionally and increasingly co-opted the clergy (or ulema) to institutionalise religious irredentism, restraints and intolerances into the societal fibre, to legitimise its own monarchial control and regime-perpetuation. Events like the seizing of the Grand Mosque in 1979 and the sectarian feud with Iran ensured that the Saudis further invested in revisionist mores and clamped down on civil liberties, with the posture of religious sanctification and authorisation.
These regressive curbs took the form of gender discrimination, mandated religious observances, the forbidding of dissent and the closure of ‘un-Islamic’ entertainments such as cinemas and music performance.
All this while, ‘the West’ turned a convenient Nelson’s eye to these Saudi actions, owing to those governments’ own energy, geopolitical and geostrategic interests. But after the Cold War, the Saudi state-funded religiosity metastasised into an even more virulent strain which took on its own progenitor – the likes of Osama Bin laden, who were the creations of Wahhabi sensibilities and American arms, would soon fault the House of Saud for not being adherent enough!
King Abdullah’s death in 2015, the retreat of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State from 2016 onwards, and Trump’s re-vilification of Iran in 2017 – led the succeeding Saudi King Salman to bring his own son centrestage, and Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) emerged as the real power behind the throne.
Initially, the hoopla around MBS revolved around his ostensibly reformist agenda, which by focusing on correcting gender inequities, defining an economic vision beyond a reliance on oil (Vision 2030) and making other right noises had him feted as the ‘new hope’ in Saudi Arabia. Commentators prematurely hailed MBS’s advent as Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring.
These hyperbolic accolades drowned the credible murmurs, of surreptitious manoeuvres and realpolitik to ensure that MBS was positioned for the top job.
There was first the whispered house arrest of MBS’s own mother, at his behest, to keep her from the King, as it was feared she would betray MBS’s reckless ambitions to the King. Then came the clinical palace coup which saw MBS mysteriously dethrone his cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who had earlier been appointed by MBS’s own father as heir apparent.
Soon the mirage of reforms disappeared in an unprecedented and brazen power play that entailed an internal purge of the hitherto privileged members of the royalty, administrators and favoured businessmen. The so-called anti-corruption drive had mopped up a whopping $100 billion, and more importantly it established the order, tenor and nature of the instincts that were to dominate the Saudi narrative.
This irascibly interventionist streak soon extended to external affairs, with the Saudis getting embroiled in a full-fledged military misadventure in Yemen, stunningly ostracising a fellow-Gulf sheikhdom in Qatar, and even ‘kidnapping’ the Prime Minister of Lebanon!
The means and methods deployed by MBS were extra-judicial, cold-blooded and contravened all norms of diplomacy and sobriety – and worse, they personified the basic instincts of an incorrigible autocrat with a boorish outlook, the exact opposite of what he professed to be undertaking in Saudi Arabia.
MBS got away with his muscle-flexing, with the complete backing of the ‘Sunni bloc’ barring Qatar, and ironically even the victims of his playbook like Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, or purge victims like Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, have been coerced into reposing and reiterating their faith in the Saudi system.
The element of fear has entered the regional lexicon like never before, and the acquiescing hand of President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, along with a quiet nod from the Israelis, has only emboldened MBS into continuing with his dictatorial ways.
Against this backdrop, the brutal murder of the dissenting Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi seemingly continues the ‘new normal’ in Saudi Arabia. The planned dispatch of a 15-member hit squad into another country, and the subsequent savagery in the ostensible torture, decapitation and dismemberment of his body, is meant to reflect the mindset that prevails.
Following the script, the Saudi ruling family has officially disowned anything to do with Jamal Khashoggi, while the Gulf states have meekly issued statements of ‘standing by the Saudis’. Unsurprisingly, the US government has said that irrespective of the inquiry into Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, it would not forgo its lucrative arms deal with the current Saudi regime.
With business-as-usual booming, MBS will continue to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. The only complication, for both MBS and the US, is the declared position of Turkey on the matter. Like Qatar, Turkey is both a major US ally with military bases, and supports the feared Muslim Brotherhood which threatened the sheikhs and dictators of the Gulf during the Arab Spring.
Like Saudi Arabia, the Turkish state too fancies its own importance in the region and seeks to counterbalance Saudi influence, by upping the ante, selectively. A face saving formula that could allow both MBS-controlled Saudi Arabia and Turkey to come out unscathed is already underway with backend US efforts – though at present the optics confirm yet again that cold power holds sway in Saudi Arabia, with the sad silencing of the rare voice of dissent.
(Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry).