Murder at the Consulate: The Questions that Occupy Us

They have murdered Jamal Khashoggi but his case has slipped beyond the ability of the perpetrators to contain it, and the ability of governments to cut a deal to cover it up at a certain price to be collected from the Saudi leadership that has been caught red-handed.

Political leaders can make decisions, but they cannot control the consequences. This is true of the decision made to commit this heinous crime, and true of the attempts to reach a deal to safeguard relations with the Saudi kingdom.

No war has erupted over the death of one person since the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, but Syria was indeed forced to withdraw its forces from Lebanon following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and Damascus certainly had not anticipated that. It seems that Mohammed bin Salman will have to pay a higher price.

The Khashoggi affair is now a matter of public opinion and conscience in the East as in the West. His slaying has revealed a volcanic crater beneath it, through which lava-like eruptions of frustration and anger have surfaced: Anger over the war in Yemen and the disregard for Yemeni civilians; anger over the detention of women rights activists for demanding the right to drive long before the Saudi crown prince came to appropriate the issue because his vanity did not allow anyone else to beat him to this great ‘achievement’; anger over the arrest of Saudi reformists whose cause does not begin and end at allowing singing and dancing in the kingdom (albeit this is a right that should be supported along other forms of normal human activities); and anger over the Saudi-Emirati hostility, in words and in deeds, to any form of democratic change or political liberalization in the region.

Today, Saudi Arabia and its allies label any political opponent a ‘terrorist’ and seek to portray them as such in the West. Its rulers believe ‘terrorism’ is a magical word that works well to impress the ‘sponsors’ in the West, along other stunts such as expressing admiration for Israel, blaming Palestinians for their own tragedy, adopting with fanfare the latest in digital technology, and pretending to be CEO-like personalities who only want the job done and have no time for sentiments (complete with an American accent as they deliver their cliché-ridden sentences).

Everyone knows that waiting for evidence of the Saudi leadership’s involvement and links to the official suspects who arrived by private planes – many of whom personal bodyguards of the Saudi de-facto ruler – and other questions related to the recordings, is unnecessary, or a formality required for official spokespeople for the sake of correctness, even as they know the crime at the consulate could not be conceived let alone executed without the express orders of the de-facto ruler.

The gruesome details however could be useful for the media drama that has gripped the world public opinion, and rightly so, and perhaps for the film that may be produced in the future, possibly titled ‘Murder at the Consulate’, about the terrifying end of the dissident Saudi journalist who was once close to the royal family.

What should occupy us is not the responsibility of Mohammed bin Salman for the barbaric act, because this is a given, and the waters of the whole of the Arabian Sea shall not wash his hands clean of Khashoggi’s blood, nor any deal or narrative proposed to him by Trump and his henchmen. No, what we should ask is this: What kind of leader makes such a criminal yet foolish decision?

Many have raised questions about the logic behind murdering Khashoggi in the consulate, when it would have been simpler to achieve the same result in an obscure alleyway, and have the official suspicion directed at persons unknown.

So why was it done at the consulate? Perhaps they really wanted to abduct him, or perhaps it is a combination of hubris and stupidity, and a blinding rage against the victim for his ‘insolence’ despite his ‘low status’. Who did Khashoggi think he was, they have must have thought, for he was no big businessman, official, or son of an official to be merely jailed at the Ritz.

There is a kind of vanity unjustified by any intellectual, academic, economic, or military achievements that afflicts some of the ignorant offspring of wealthy or powerful families, like an episode of insanity. And there is a kind of self-assigned licence exhibited by men spoiled by undeserved blessings that they think gives the right to hold in contempt anyone who is not powerful, wealthy, or significant based on a gilded logic of pure blood and tribal lineage that any enlightened person in the East or the West considers a sign of backwardness – save for those who defend it in all seriousness in the virtual world of Twitter, the only real space for their victories.

So for a ‘commoner’ to dare criticise them is an act that crosses all their red lines, an act of profound ‘ingratitude’, as though it is them who bestow grace upon the fruits of one’s labour, and as though they had themselves earned their wealth through their toil. The most a ‘commoner’ can attain according to this twisted logic, is to be a servant or an adviser of them. Otherwise, if they decide to kill him, then for them this is the equivalent of lynching a slave at the hands of his owners – for who would care for the death of a mere slave?

It must be shocking for them that this man’s death has preoccupied people in the real world, not the world of their bots on Twitter. It must be shocking for them that the Washington Post has made his murder a frontpage headline the length of a week, and that his death has become an American domestic issue encumbering Trump himself, not just by way of his foes but also his own party whose representatives are seeking to differentiate themselves from their president.

It is an opportunity to show that not everyone in American politics is a real estate dealer whose calling in life is to hunt down the best price when selling the worst goods, or the cheapest price when buying the best goods, and that there are things at play other than market logic, not necessarily morals, but also things like reputation, image and self-respect.

We are talking here about a person whose hubris and grudges has deluded him into believing he could settle decisively the war in Yemen within two weeks because its people are ‘just Yemenis’. And if not, he could always level Yemen to the ground, because why not? Mohammed bin Salman could not conceive entering into a political deal of any kind there, because who are the Yemenis for him to deign to make peace with? And he may recognise the legitimate government in Yemen, but he has no respect for it.

This is the same person who detained the prime minister of Lebanon after inviting him to a visit, as though summoning him for questioning. Just because he supported him financially and just because he and his family had lived in Saudi Arabia in the past, he could not bear having to respect him as a prime minister.

In other words, this kind of leadership pretends to give safe passage in order to betray. Thus Jamal Khashoggi was given safe passage to his consulate to conclude simple personal paperwork, only to be interrogated before he was murdered. His fiancée waited for hours outside the consulate, before sending out an SOS to the media and the public opinion.

In truth, this kind of treachery also signals a lack of commitment to any norms or traditions. What we have before us is a young leader who inherited the royal prerogative with its authoritarianism and unconstitutionality, yet without its values, norms, and traditions, that is, without all that had made it bearable to the traditional leaders of the community who mediated between the royal family and its ‘subjects’.

People wished for modernisation and believed any kind of it would be beneficial for Saudi Arabia, including the reining in of the religious establishment’s control over people’s daily lives, even if the cost was the extreme centralisation of power. However, centralising power for the purpose of modernization requires for the person at the helm to be a wise and rational actor.

Khashoggi knew that he will not be treated as a citizen should be, but he expected at least to be treated as a subject, protected from harm for ‘old times’ sake’. However, he forgot that these people do not honour things like promises or a history of friendship. They detained a prime minister who could not be saved except by a Western head of state with white skin that the inferiority complex of the leaders could not refuse him a request – the same inferiority complex that becomes a superiority complex against their people and people with the same skin colour.

Their biggest problem with a person like Barack Obama was that he represented a superpower vis-à-vis which they had an inferiority complex, while being black like the people they consider slaves, according to their basic inclinations.

Equal their embarrassment is when they have to sit with women leaders who represent powerful Western nations and blocs, because they have nothing but misogynistic disdain for women in their hearts.

These young leaders are angry with the Islamists, not because they are seculars who separate mosque from state, and place humans at the centre of the universe, because in their universe there is no centre, neither human nor divine, except power and wealth. They are furious with Islamists because they have organised themselves into political parties and movements, a taboo whether for Islamists or secularists. And they are angry with the Islamist mood in general, because they see it as an obstacle to living the consumerist lifestyle they and certain classes in society desire.

They have sold the West ‘reforms’ – and detentions – that allow them to live this lifestyle, as social and religious reforms. But in reality, these measures are only meant to allow certain social classes in the kingdom access to consumerist habits, and to turn the religious establishment and clergy into yes-men who communicate their instructions to their religious audience, while praising the rulers and cursing dissidents, and preoccupying themselves with only matters of superstition and witchcraft.

This class of rulers are no liberals, neither politically nor economically. Liberalism has nothing to do with appropriating the resources of a nation, and distributing them as though distributing charity. Their aim is not liberalisation in the sense of opening up freedoms, beyond opening up lifestyle-related freedoms despite the fact that this opening is much needed. The goal is not to open up the public sphere to the citizens, or respect their civil rights and freedoms including the freedom of expression in religious, political, and other matters.

Every sane person supports Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms because they touch on obvious, fundamental rights in this time and age, but they have been accompanied by the centralisation of power and securitisation of society, and by intolerance, even with close kin, towards any dissenting view.

Even those who do not support him, yet do not oppose him, have been punished, to the point that Saudi regime loyalists remind us today of the shabbiha thugs of the Syrian regime, who can speak no language other than praising their masters and cursing their opponents.

This is the kind of leadership that decided to assassinate Khashoggi in his country’s consulate, in a sovereign nation – the Republic of Turkey – believing this a trivial act that cannot deserve all this fuss, or that the fuss would quickly quiet down, just like it did with the detention of Saad Hariri, who was also reportedly assaulted; and just like it did with the detention of women’s rights activists, which no state protested except Canada – after which Saudi Arabia decided to highlight the ‘plight’ of women and native peoples there, becoming the laughing stock of the world.

There is a close link between this self-given licence to unshackle oneself from all red lines, and the climate Trump has created in international relations, in terms of the major powers’ indifference to human suffering, international norms, and respect for international treaties.

Of relevance too is the Arab regimes’ appetite for oppression and revenge against their citizens, enabled by their triumphalist perception of having defeated their societies through the coup in Egypt and the unprecedented violence by the Syrian regime against its people.

The international toleration of regimes’ escalating oppression in the Middle East emboldened them to carry in with their atrocities. However, it appears the Khashoggi affair and the responses to it, with people almost competing to express disgust and condemnation of the heinous crime, are reflecting the people’s frustration, in the East as in the West, with all of this. There is real resentment, and there is repressed Arab wrath starting to emit its sparks at every occasion.

Azmi Bishara is the General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.

This article was originally published by The New Arab on October 19, 2018. The original can be viewed here