A DECADE or so ago, when the prime minister of Australia mentioned an upcoming Group of 20 (G20) gathering to the US president, he got the impression that the latter — it happened to be George W. Bush — had no idea what his interlocutor was talking about.
Donald Trump presumably has a vaguely better idea of what he will be walking into when he travels to Buenos Aires later this week for a gathering of leaders from the world’s top 20 economies. Among the luminaries he will encounter there with varying degrees of enthusiasm is the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recently concluded that MBS was behind the grotesque murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul almost two months ago. Apart from the fairly damning evidence supplied by Turkish authorities, the agency’s conclusion appears to be based on phone intercepts, including of conversations between the crown prince and his brother Khalid bin Salman, who happens to be the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
Somewhat like Trump, MBS is something of a political novice.
Somewhat rattled by the international and even domestic reaction to the dastardly deed, MBS embarked on a trip to the UAE and Tunisia before travelling to Argentina. It was an easy choice, given his collaborators in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, respectively Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) and Mohammed bin Rashid (who has allegedly imprisoned a daughter), could hardly be expected to offer any criticism.
The UAE is complicit, after all, in the misguided aggression against Yemen. Reports suggest it has even employed Israeli-supplied contractors. Small wonder, then, that it detained and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment a British academic, Matthew Hedges, who made the mistake of investigating the Gulf state’s security structure and priorities.
Luckily for Hedges, his wife, Daniela Tejada, had the good sense to go public with her angst, compelling the British state — which puts great store by its arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates — to take a relatively strong stance, leading to a ‘pardon’. The decision vaguely coincided with the UAE’s foundation day on Dec 2, when it’s traditional to forgive a few criminals.
It could be a long time, though, before the Emirates are liberated from the al-Nahyans, al-Rashids and from Saudi hegemony, not to mention an always sleazy relationship with the pre-1970s colonial power, Britain, that inevitably transmogrified into a client-state status vis-à-vis the US and now extends to an only slightly surreptitious wedlock with Israel.
For all its misbegotten and misspent wealth, though, the UAE does not qualify for G20 status, so MBS may not have anyone to lean on in Buenos Aires other than Donald Trump, who has lately misinterpreted the CIA’s findings, just as he has sought to undermine his own administration’s conclusions about the threat posed by climate change, declaring that they are “fine” but “I don’t believe them”.
Trump has likewise parroted the mantra he heard from MBS regarding Khashoggi, namely that he was “an enemy of the state” by virtue of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. The obvious point in this context is that no one needs to subscribe to Khashoggi’s political views — and the spokesmen in Riyadh undoubtedly vastly embellish them — to defend his right to express them without being strangled and quartered in a diplomatic outpost (or anywhere else, for that matter).
One would have to be an utter imbecile — or the president of the United States — to accept any part of the evolving Saudi narrative about Khashoggi’s fate. Initially, he walked out of the consulate shortly after entering it. Then, he died accidentally. After that, it was a premeditated murder. Finally, but perhaps not conclusively, he was killed when he refused the kind offer to return to Saudi Arabia — but this fate wasn’t decreed by the crown prince.
Of course not, even though in the past couple of years nothing significant has happened in the Saudi realm without MBS’s explicit imprimatur. His signature ‘achievement’ lies in acceding to Saudi women the right to drive vehicles. Yet the leading activists who mildly agitated for that right find themselves incarcerated.
Somewhat like Trump, MBS is something of a political novice. It remains unlikely that he will be displaced as king-in-waiting unless ructions in the al-Saud clan come to a head. But the manner in which he is greeted in Buenos Aires by leaders other than Trump and Vladimir Putin, during photo-ops and the like, could help to determine his long-term fate.
It must be said, though, that the Saudi populace will be ill-served even if the kingdom reverts to the less gung-ho status quo ante that Khashoggi preferred. Notwithstanding Trump’s adulation, the poor-little-very-rich nation requires a drastic restructuring that the House of Saud cannot possibly provide.
Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2018