IN all my years of following the media, I have never seen such a sustained attack on Saudi Arabia, or on the most powerful member of the royal family who is currently calling the shots, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Almost every newspaper and TV news programme in the West has been leading with the murky story of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a fortnight ago with increasing anger over the behaviour displayed by MBS, as the prince likes to be called.

Even Trump has come under pressure to label Khashoggi’s presumed murder “bad, very bad”. But despite the revulsion worldwide, the American president stopped short of placing any sanctions on what the world is calling a rogue state. As he said, the Saudis have placed orders worth $110 billion of American arms, and these lead to more jobs at home.

This, to many in America, overcomes any moral qualms in dealing with a country that allegedly uses these weapons to kill thousands of defenceless Yemenis and to crush its own citizens into submission.

But MBS might have pushed his luck with this hit on Khashoggi, taking place as it did at the Saudi consulate in a friendly state. Obviously, the fact that the dissident Saudi was living in Washington, and was a regular columnist for the US capital’s most widely read daily, The Washington Post, has helped in internationalising the case. Twenty-one senators have triggered an FBI investigation by writing to Trump, expressing their outrage.

A problem with rulers like MBS is that they are so used to being instantly obeyed as they crush dissent at home that they think it’s no big deal to knock off or kidnap a pesky opponent abroad.

Having spent many millions on PR to burnish his image abroad, and specially on lobbyists in America, MBS probably thought the global fury would soon blow over. But it has only intensified, showing that the capacity for revulsion has not entirely left us.

More than the harm his personal image and prestige has suffered, Khashoggi’s fate has done immense and perhaps terminal damage to his ambitious programme to wean the kingdom off oil. To this end, he had tried to build up Saudi Arabia as a liberal state where women could (finally!) drive cars, and be encouraged to work. Cinemas and entertainment centres were opened, and the infamous vice police were called off. Young men and women could mix in cafes and restaurants. Welcome to the 21st century…

Read: The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi and the ascendancy of MBS

But what didn’t change were the weekly beheadings (48 this year so far), the public floggings, and draconian sentences like the thousand strokes and ten years a young dissident is undergoing. Women activists have been jailed, with one being kidnapped in Abu Dhabi to be dragged off to Saudi Arabia.

This then was the strategy being followed by MBS: show a liberal face to the West, while keeping a tight lid on dissent at home. However, the mask came off when a 15-man Saudi hit squad arrived for a day in Istanbul. According to Turkish intelligence officials, Khashoggi was enticed into the consulate to seek an official document he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée.

There, he was tortured for two hours before being murdered. Sabah, a Turkish daily close to the government, claims that audio clips of the torture and murder are in the hands of intelligence agencies. Clearly, the consulate had been thoroughly bugged.

The fallout from this vile crime goes beyond the political arena: MBS had planned a major investment conference called Future Investment Initiative — dubbed Davos in the Desert — in Riyadh next week. Many major political, corporate and media giants had accepted invitations to an event that would have introduced the kingdom as a safe, liberal country where investors could benefit by placing their money in profitable projects.

But after the Istanbul fiasco, many major figures have declared they will no longer be coming. These include Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, who has pulled out of his advisory role on Saudi tourism boards, and halted talks on a possible Saudi investment in his space ventures. The Financial Times, the Economist and The New York Times, all media partners for the event, have also pulled out. Others are bound to follow as the Saudis brazenly continue to deny any involvement.

Khashoggi’s apparent murder has placed Turkey in an awkward spot. On the one hand, it cannot afford a confrontation with a wealthy Saudi Arabia that wields considerable clout among Sunnis; on the other, it does not wish to be seen to be out of control when a major crime is committed on its soil. Perhaps this was the reason President Erdogan facilitated the release of Andrew Brunson, a pastor who was arrested in Turkey for allegedly supporting the coup two years ago, and for helping the Kurdish separatist party, the PKK.

Sentenced to five years in prison, his fate caused outrage among American evangelical Christians, hardcore Trump supporters all. Trump spoke to Erdogan about Brunson several times, and finally slapped high tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium imports, causing the Turkish lira into a sharp, inflationary slide. By releasing the pastor, Erdogan must be hoping for American pressure on Saudi Arabia to intensified over Khashoggi’s death.

Meanwhile, countries like the United Kingdom are now weighing up their policy of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia while turning a blind eye to the kingdom’s vicious and poorly directed bombing campaign against Yemeni civilians, and turning the country into what the UN has described as “this century’s worst manmade disaster”.

Mohammed bin Salman’s failed attempt to besiege and isolate Qatar has backfired badly. All these failures point to a young (33), inexperienced man, drunk on power.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2018

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