The Khashoggi Scandal: Context Matters

Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London, England, September 29, 2018. (Middle East Monitor via Reuters )
And remember the goal: rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East.  

The disappearance of Saudi journalist and former kingdom insider Jamal Khashoggi sent shockwaves across the Middle East and Washington. On October 10, President Donald Trump said that the US was “demanding” answers after the writer went missing while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Tuesday.

American Senators and congressmen have urged the White House to support an investigation into the missing man’s whereabouts and Vice President Mike Pence has offered FBI support. U.S.–Saudi relations, which have warmed under Trump after being on the rocks during the Obama administration, are now potentially at risk as it becomes increasingly clear that the journalist was killed.

Khashoggi’s case is not unique in the history of governments that target dissidents and that suppress and even murder journalists. The poisoning of former Russian GRU Intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in March, in Salisbury, England, and the controversial detention and deportation of Turkish dissidents in Kosovo the same month caused upheavals earlier this year. The disappearance of Khashoggi set off alarm bells because the journalist had a high profile as an influencer and insider who had become a symbol of the kingdom’s changing role.

In the 1980s, Khashoggi pioneered foreign reporting for Saudi Arabia, meeting and spending time with Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. He rose to editor of the newspaper Al Watan, and in 2008 he was a media adviser to the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United Kingdom. He developed a growing audience in the West, where he sought to burnish the kingdom’s image. Writing at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he touted the “progressive” agenda of Islamist political groups that he felt showed the “dynamism that Saudi Arabia, a deeply conservative country, is experiencing.” He embraced the Arab Spring, and thought that Saudi Arabia should work with parties inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood; this included the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Over time, Khashoggi grew more and more critical of Riyadh’s policies as the kingdom confronted the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar. In 2015, he had lamented the kingdom’s war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia was leading several allies to oppose the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Khashoggi also told the Daily Beast in 2015 that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef “is very well known in Washington and he is the one who is orchestrating the relationship with America.” Khashoggi was critical of the Trump administration precisely when Riyadh was searching for a warmer American relationship.

In June 2017, King Salman of Saudi Arabia appointed Mohammed bin Salman, then 31 years old, as his heir, pushing aside Bin Nayef, the king’s nephew. Bin Salman embraced the Trump administration and has sought deals to buy billions’ worth of arms; he has also supported the rebuilding of eastern Syria where the U.S.-led coalition is fighting ISIS. Bin Salman has portrayed himself as a reformer; Thomas Friedman, for one, has cooed over him in several New York Times columns.

Khashoggi fell out with the kingdom over Bin Salman’s new direction. Saudi Arabia broke relations with Qatar and accused the emirate of supporting extremism, including Hamas and Hezbollah. Khashoggi left the kingdom and appeared on Qatar’s Al Jazeera in Doha in November 2017, arguing that Saudi Arabia should return to its “religious roots.” He accused Riyadh of abandoning the Palestinians and was concerned that the kingdom might be speaking with Israel.

While Bin Salman was excoriating the Muslim Brotherhood, Khashoggi wrote at the Washington Post, where he had a column, that the U.S. and the kingdom were wrong in opposing the Islamists. While Bin Salman condemned Turkey as part of a “triangle of evil,” alongside Qatar and Islamist extremists, Khashoggi was talking about Turkey as a model in the region.

The Khashoggi affair — whether Turkey and Saudi Arabia agree that it was a “rogue” operation by certain Saudis or ordered from the highest levels — symbolizes the wider regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and its allies, on the one hand, and Turkey and Qatar on the other. As a former adviser, Khashoggi was influential in the region and in the U.S., which is Saudi Arabia’s key ally. He became a pawn used by critics of Bin Salman, including those at Al Jazeera. Major American media outlets made use of him to critique the Trump administration’s pro-Saudi policies.

His tragic death has led to an outpouring of rage at the administration for its Saudi ties. It is being used to suggest that Saudi Arabia “must answer” for the alleged crime, as the New York Times editorial board recently wrote, and that the disappearance was a “slap in the face” to the Unites States, as a Foreign Policy headline stated.

What should the U.S do in this difficult circumstance? The administration cannot be seen to condone the killing of a journalist by an ally. However, the kidnapping does not “upend” world order, as CNN’s Nic Robertson argued. Unfortunately, the apparent kidnapping follows a trend of increasing global authoritarianism. In other appalling instances, such as an attack on peaceful protesters in Washington by Turkish security in May 2017, the U.S. has sought to engage troublesome allies.

Saudi Arabia is a historic American ally, and its views today complement U.S. policy that aims to roll back Iranian influence in the region. In contrast, Turkey’s Erdogan has accused America of building an “army of terror” in eastern Syria, where the U.S. has been working with mostly Kurdish partner forces to defeat ISIS. Turkey finally released detained American pastor Andrew Brunson on Friday, but Ankara is also growing closer to Iran and Russia, meeting frequently with both countries to discuss Syria.

The Khashoggi affair gives the administration room to maneuver. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia are looking to Washington. Turkey wants answers, and the United States can help provide them. The offer of FBI assistance is a good step, although it appears that Ankara will forge some kind of face-saving deal with Riyadh. The U.S. could help broker that but must not allow Turkey to exploit this case to undermine American policy or whitewash its own troublesome record. For instance, on October 16, Ankara asked Interpol to issue a “red notice” against investigative journalist Can Dundar on spying charges..

We must not remove the targeting of Khashoggi from its regional context. There is a conflict for leadership in the post-ISIS Middle East and for the legacy of the Arab Spring. Khashoggi and the crown prince had very differing views on the lessons of the past and on where the region should go. Both Riyadh and Ankara have been cracking down on dissidents. A careful American policy in managing this crisis could pressure both countries to liberalize while keeping a sharp eye on Iran.

Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum.

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