The Khashoggi Affair and the Future of Saudi Arabia

The disappearance and possible assassination of Saudi Arabian journalist and commentator Jamal Khashoggi are still subject to investigatory work by the Turkish police. Contradictory information thus far—leaked or official—from Turkish sources about his murder inside or outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and vehement denials by Saudi Arabian officials, make believing one version of the story over another a fraught exercise. Indeed, for a serious observer, the evidence neither fully confirms the killing scenario nor culpability for it, nor does it exculpate the regime in Riyadh. Still, what has been well known is the Saudi regime’s persecution of dissidents inside and outside the kingdom, buttressing a monolithic official discourse that sees fault in any criticism, however mild, of its policies and behavior.

Despite the lack of concrete information about Khashoggi’s disappearance, the event is very likely to constitute a milestone for the future of Saudi Arabia. To be sure, the Khashoggi affair and others concerning relations between the rulers and the ruled in the kingdom strongly indicate that Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), may have finally chosen to throw all caution to the wind in its relations with both its domestic constituency and international friends and allies. As has become clear since October 2, Khashoggi’s disappearance has taken on the importance of a serious international incident whose repercussions are likely to remain with the kingdom for a long time to come.

Three interconnected aspects influence how the kingdom plans for its future prosperity, social peace and development, and political and strategic posturing. To one degree or another, all have pivotal or tangential relation to the Khashoggi affair but will most assuredly be affected by how it ends. The first is the domestic politics of dissent that has touched different aspects and sectors of Saudi society; the second is economic change and diversification; and the third is relations with the United States.

Domestic Dissent

Jamal Khashoggi advocated openness and change in Saudi politics and society while criticizing current Saudi domestic and regional policies. This automatically situated him within the dissident class of Saudi intellectuals, although he never imagined himself an opponent of the current leadership. This alone should not be interpreted as accusing the Saudi leadership of responsibility for his disappearance and possible death. When examining the record in Saudi Arabia, however, it is clear that dissidents in the kingdom have been intimidated and imprisoned for much less serious crimes, or for no crimes at all. Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2018 documented the arrests in 2017 of scores of activists, clerics, intellectuals, businesspeople, and others. That year, authorities also executed 133 individuals, almost half of whom were charged with mere drug offenses. Religious minorities face discrimination while women are treated as second class citizens. Despite the end of the ban on women’s driving, Saudi activists in 2018 were imprisoned for advocating for more rights for women and were accused of being foreign agents.

Although the aforementioned list of violations of rights does not fully cover the panoply of official policies restricting freedoms of speech, assembly, and opinion, it can be seen as an indication of where speech and expression, essential tools of free-minded intellectuals like Jamal Khashoggi, meet orthodoxy in today’s Saudi Arabia. The disappeared journalist decried this reality in a September 2017 column for The Washington Post, calling it “unbearable.” Indeed, the discourse promoted by MbS and his advisors has placed economic development and change ahead of political or social transformation, a practice usually applied and perfected by authoritarian regimes. It can be argued that Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible murder show where the kingdom is heading: toward a desolate political and social feudal state governed by an over-ambitious and Machiavellian young crown prince who believes he is the true savior of the historical and religious realm of Saudi Arabia and Islam.

Khashoggi’s fate will send a chilling message that Saudi modernization will remain confined to material goods and pleasures

Khashoggi’s fate will reverberate into every corner of Saudi Arabian life and send a chilling message of despair and frustration that the modernization that Saudis have striven to achieve over the last few decades will remain confined to material goods and pleasures—while the kingdom continues to stifle free thought and expression. If the rumors of his killing at the hands of official Saudi agents are accurate, no one who advocates for social change will feel immune from severe repercussions in the future. It is hard to see how the closure of avenues for commentary and advice outside the confines of official orthodoxy will allow Saudi Arabia to maintain long-term civic peace and political stability, let alone advance as a society and nation. If anything, this is precisely the most poignant comment on what Khashoggi’s fate may mean for the future of domestic politics in the kingdom.

Precarious Economic Change

Since King Salman took over the reins of power in early 2015 and then gave authority to his son Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince has touted an economic program––Saudi Vision 2030––that claims to transform Saudi economics and diversify the Saudi economy away from rentierism and hydrocarbon dependence. Essential elements of this program are foreign investment, education, innovation and entrepreneurship, women’s and youth empowerment, and privatization of enterprises owned and operated by the government. To be sure, the vision depends on a vibrant society partaking in the project of modernizing a welfare state that, since its establishment in 1932, has offered a social contract that exchanged services and largesse for full loyalty and fealty to the ruling House of Saud.

But the economic modernization program is facing some daunting challenges from poor performance of the overall economy. Statistics show an overall decline in the gross domestic product (GDP) and GDP per capita, annual economic growth, fiscal balance, and many other indicators. Investment is in decline and capital flight is accelerating; even the vaunted Saudi sovereign wealth fund is experiencing some serious depletion, ostensibly because of the ongoing war in Yemen. A year ago, MbS launched the $500 billion NEOM project to build a modern mega-city straddling the Saudi-Jordanian-Egyptian border; however, its fate is hardly assured given the shrinking Saudi budget and capital flight. An initial public offering (IPO) of five percent of the government-owned ARAMCO conglomerate, which was hoped to bring in billions in investment, was recently shelved, although the government insists that suspending the IPO was only a temporary measure.

While it may be difficult to link the Khashoggi affair to the fate of bin Salman’s economic reform program, it is easy to view the international and domestic uproar regarding possible Saudi culpability as spurring a loss of confidence in the rationality of rule in the kingdom. Some global tech industry leaders who were tapped to advise on NEOM are now distancing themselves from the project, in light of the allegations regarding Khashoggi’s case. Other business leaders and even Washington, DC-based lobbying firms are either questioning maintaining ties with the kingdom or cutting them altogether. It is indeed doubtful that new foreign investors looking for opportunities will rush to enter the Saudi market if the state and its leadership nonchalantly disregard basic human rights, despite any assurances that the government may give. The November 2017 extrajudicial arrests of Saudi businessmen and royal family members, purportedly on corruption charges, sent unmistakable messages to foreign investors about the uncertainty of the Saudi legal codes that would govern their prized investments. Khashoggi’s fate will likely have a similar effect, dooming for good MbS’s hope for a successful economic transformation program.

Saudi-American Relations

The Khashoggi affair cannot be separated from its impact on Saudi-American relations, and especially on the special relationship that has bound President Donald Trump to MbS since early 2017. The crown prince has made his relationship with the American president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a steady source of domestic and international legitimacy and influence. Indeed, on many occasions President Trump has shown his admiration for and support of the crown prince’s actions and decisions, even when they ran contrary to established American policy and practice. The initial days of the Gulf crisis of June 2017 saw Trump endorsing the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini accusation of alleged Qatari malfeasance regarding terrorism, relations with Iran, and interference in the domestic affairs of neighboring nations. When MbS imprisoned Saudi businessmen and royal family members in November 2017, Trump offered “great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.” When MbS visited the United States in the spring of 2018, Trump was rather accommodating and encouraging of the young prince’s programs and ambitions.

But the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi and the ubiquitous and incessant insinuation of Saudi responsibility have impacted how the American president looks at the Saudi leadership. After remaining silent for a few days following Khashoggi’s disappearance, Trump tepidly declared that he did not “like it” and hoped that the matter would “sort itself out.” On October 10, he moved the goalpost to state that the situation was “bad” and that, “We can’t let this happen to reporters, to anyone … We’ll have to find out who did it.” Vice President Mike Pence also said he was “deeply troubled” about the news and decried violence against journalists. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a thorough investigation into the matter. And perhaps most indicative of where the Trump Administration is moving regarding this matter was the president’s announcement that he will host Khashoggi’s fiancée at the White House, after declaring that he raised this issue at the highest levels of the Saudi government. Still, one may not have all confidence that President Trump will indeed swing to criticize the Saudi leadership, given his latest statements on the importance of Saudi Arabia to the American economy.

A Washington Post report on October 10 revealed that US intelligence agencies have information about a plan by high level Saudi officials, including Mohammed bin Salman, to lure Khashoggi back to Riyadh. The report indicates that the Istanbul consulate strategy appears to have been a back-up in case he refused to go. This could not make the president’s position any less difficult with official Washington. As the Post states, a bipartisan group of US senators asked the Trump Administration to impose sanctions on Saudis involved in the Khashoggi affair, with powerful Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) opining that “Khashoggi’s death could alter the nature of relations between the two countries.” In fact, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and 18 other senators wrote a letter to the president in which they invoked the Global Magnitsky Act, which covers the responsibility for “extrajudicial killing, torture, or other gross violation of internationally recognized human rights.”

While it is unexpected that President Trump would have a disparaging stance regarding Mohammed bin Salman’s decisions—given the US president’s antipathy toward civil rights activists and journalists, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere—MbS’s overreach in dealing with dissenters may finally have caused disenchantment at the White House. Additionally, the American midterm elections are approaching and both the president and the Republican Party are feeling the pressures of public opinion, which is evident across the print and electronic media. For example, an editorial in The Washington Post, where Khashoggi contributed commentaries, all but directly accused the Saudi rulers of ordering the writer’s assassination and called on the Trump Administration to reexamine its relationship with the kingdom. A similar editorial in The New York Times demanded that the Saudi leadership come clean on the matter.

Riyadh should be worried about the American reaction to the Khashoggi affair because it depends on its strategic relationship with Washington

Longtime Washington Post reporter and Saudi expert Thomas Lippman wrote that if Saudi agents were responsible for killing Khashoggi, then it would be “hard to imagine a quick return to business as usual” with Saudi Arabia. New York Times opinion write Michelle Goldberg considered that Trump’s permissiveness with the world’s authoritarians gave them “the green light” to stifle dissent. In other words, public pressure on the Trump Administration may expose its political weaknesses and may force a reckoning between the United States and Saudi Arabia. In this context, Riyadh itself should also be worried because it depends on its strategic relationship with Washington; Saudi Arabia needs American support in the ongoing cold war with Iran and confrontation with the Houthis in Yemen. Riyadh knows that it dodged a bullet last March when a resolution in the American Senate to stop American military assistance to the Saudi war effort in Yemen lost only by a small margin. If Democrats are victorious in the upcoming midterm elections in gaining a majority in the House of Representatives, or perhaps in the Senate, similar resolutions to censure or withdraw support from Saudi Arabia would certainly be helped by a revelation that Saudi officials were behind Khashoggi’s disappearance and assassination.

Will Riyadh Take Heed?

Although the Turkish authorities’ investigation into the case of Jamal Khashoggi has not concluded, there are troubling revelations that the Saudi leadership has a lot to worry about. Surveillance video and investigative reporting have uncovered unsettling evidence that Riyadh may indeed have executed a plan to silence or assassinate him. The Khashoggi affair has clearly propelled Saudi Arabia to a crossroads as it tackles serious political, economic, and social challenges at home. Its choices are limited: complete domestic authoritarianism and regional and international chauvinism, or a gradual, rational, and studied change of course toward a liberal political environment and openness to the world.

Khashoggi’s departure from the scene should be viewed as a call for a reckoning in Riyadh

The Khashoggi affair may have rendered such a decision by Saudi Arabia more urgent today. The message in Jamal Khashoggi’s writings to Saudi leaders was not radical change and revolution; after all, he was a creature of the Saudi system and believed in its legitimacy. He wrote that what irked him were the ill-conceived plans on which his country’s new leadership built seemingly impossible dreams. Indeed, in almost four years since King Salman took over in Riyadh, the kingdom has made arguably catastrophic mistakes—all blamed on Mohammed bin Salman—that have only made Khashoggi’s observations more poignant: the war in Yemen, the concocted crisis with Qatar, the arrest and forced resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, dormant economic transformation, and myriad other domestic and international decisions. Khashoggi’s departure from the scene should thus be viewed as a call for a reckoning in Riyadh, one that would right the direction of the kingdom and correct the course of the ship of state.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

Jamal Kashoggi spoke about the changing political climate in Saudi Arabia at an ACW briefing titled Shake-up in Riyadh: Regional and International Implications on November 17, 2017. To listen to his remarks click here