The murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi reminded Americans that the United States remains aligned with Arab leaders who regularly repress, imprison, and kill opponents for expressing their political views. Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2 was an especially gruesome crime. To be sure, Washington has often backed regimes that employ lethal violence on a far grander scale. Egypt’s current president, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, took power in a July 2013 military coup that ended the country’s brief and tumultuous democratic experiment. Less than a month later, Egyptian security forces slaughtered some 800 civilian protesters in Rabaa Square. Sisi’s government, backed by the judiciary, then proceeded to jail tens of thousands of Egyptians on vague or trumped-up charges. Yet President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, did not protest and even praised Sisi and his allies for “restoring democracy.” From a strictly moral point of view, then, was Kerry’s statement worse than President Donald Trump’s assertion that Khashoggi’s killing was probably the work of “rogue killers”? This assertion was taken up by Saudi leaders who proceeded to dismiss alleged conspirators from their positions and imprison other collaborators—acts that are nevertheless seen by the world as only a cover-up for perfidious behavior by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Of course, when it comes to international relations, it has always been hard to evaluate US policy toward US-friendly autocrats in strictly moral terms. For the United States, and surely for many of its Western European allies, aligning power and principle remains a tricky matter. Indeed, as the cases of Saudi Arabia and Egypt demonstrate, many US leaders from both political parties continue to prioritize security and economic interests over moral concerns. If the rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain are shocked by Khashoggi’s tragic fate, it is probably because his murder exposed the deep and ugly underbelly of autocracy in states whose leaders pride themselves on their close ties to Washington.
There is something especially disconcerting—and dangerous—about the current domestic, regional, and global forces that have joined together to sustain what might be called a process of authoritarian reconfiguration, resurgence, and transformation. One aspect of this process is the rise of power-hungry despots who are determined to do more than simply impose their rule. What they seek is to circumvent—or if necessary destroy—the inherited norms and institutions that had been bequeathed (often in very battered form) by previous leaders.
These institutions were clearly not democratic. But to different degrees they allowed for managing social, identity, and political conflicts in ways that not only suited regimes but also gained a measure of support, or at least acquiescence, from leaders of rival social and political groups. For the “liberalized autocracies” of Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and for a time Yemen, this system pivoted around a so-called “ruling bargain” by which patronage and protection were given to different groups, including Islamists and secular leaders. Regimes played one group against another in ways that enhanced the rulers’ room for maneuver. In return, opposition leaders secured some space to articulate conflicting agendas and ideas—so long as they did not challenge the ultimate power of the ruling authorities. Although undergirded by powerful security establishments, these hybrid regimes were often seen by many journalists, writers, academics, NGO activists, and political leaders as preferable to the totally repressive “republics of fear” (to use Kanan Makiya’s evocative phrase) that prevailed under Hafez al-Assad (and now, his son Bashar) in Syria, Muammar Qadhafi in Libya, or Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
The seeming paradox of the 2011 Arab revolts is that, with the exception of Tunisia, they failed to advance democracy. The more telling and ironic fact is that the revolts set the stage for the still unfolding efforts of Arab leaders to either strengthen existing full autocracies (as in the UAE and Bahrain) or build more centralized and repressive regimes.
Sisi’s bid to put aside four decades of liberalized autocracy and replace it with a military-led full autocracy is just one example of this dynamic of authoritarian transformation. It is not merely a matter of “upgrading authoritarianism” but of reworking the nature and or role of both regime and state, not to mention the basic rules of the political game.
Authoritarian reconfiguration in Saudi Arabia also clashes with the distinctive mechanisms and implicit rules that long defined the country’s politics. As Stéphane Lacroix has noted, Saudi Arabia’s political system pivoted around a “neo-corporatist” dynamic—a system of certain checks and balances by which rival princes tried to forge a measure of consensus among themselves and with the leaders of important state-linked institutions, such as the clerical establishment and state bureaucracy. Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has upended this system and violated its basic rules and red lines. Placing rival princes under a kind of luxurious house arrest in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in November 2017, in order to supposedly prosecute them for corruption, was just the beginning. The ensuing arrest of various intellectuals and women’s rights activists signaled that the crown prince has no clear road map for how to create a new or coherent “ruling bargain.” On the contrary, Khashoggi’s murder demonstrates that MbS may be creating a “monarchy of fear,” the likes of which someone like Saddam Hussein would readily recognize and even applaud.
And it is of signal importance to note that the Trump White House has justified US support for Arab autocrats like MbS not merely by invoking conventional notions of realpolitik and state sovereignty. More ambitiously, during his September 25 speech before the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump argued that each country’s politics reflects a distinctive blend of “patriotism” and national “traditions.” Hoisting the metaphorical flag of moral relativism, Trump rejected any notion of universal rights or freedoms. If this message stunned many UN representatives, it was surely applauded by the leaders of a growing group of populist leaders who largely agree with Trump’s illiberal line. To that end, Sisi, MbS, and other Arab autocrats are now operating in a regional and global environment that is making it far easier for them to get away with all kinds of political thuggery, including torture and murder.
Deterring and Punishing Defectors
Whatever one thinks of Trump and his penchant for avoiding hard facts, in the case of Saudi Arabia, he has clearly and openly stated his belief that US business interests dictate that Washington should not confront Riyadh over Khashoggi’s killing. Quite apart from moral issues, however, it is well worth asking whether creating more robust authoritarian systems would advance the ambitious market reform programs championed by Sisi, MbS, and other autocrats.
From the vantage point of these leaders, the answer is a clear yes. They probably fear (and may very well be correct in this reaction) that trying to foster deep economic changes via democracy will only mobilize opposition to such changes. The cost for their thuggish behavior is not merely manifest in the decision of many global business leaders not to attend the upcoming “Davos in the Desert” conference in Riyadh or to suspend ambitious investment projects with their Saudi counterparts. Rather, the bigger question is political: might the effort to impose full autocracy provoke some measure of pushback, resistance, or dissent within the wider state establishment, or even within the immediate arena of the ruling regimes themselves?
It is this “cracking” of the state that Arab autocrats most fear. Defections from regimes are dangerous precisely because they sometimes invite wider social resistance. This is why in 1979, Saddam Hussein convened a now infamous meeting of the ruling Baath Party Congress during which he read the names of over sixty “traitors,” one third of whom were shot after being escorted outside the hall. Recorded on camera for all to see, this two-hour Stalinist spectacle (complete with a weeping Saddam) insured that henceforth, no one would dare challenge his rule.
Sisi has not responded to defections with quite this level of violence. In the case of several would-be opponents, including Generals Sami Anan and Ahmed Shafiq (who assailed his policies and even dared to try and enter the April 2018 presidential election), Sisi took the kinder route of imprisoning his challengers rather than eliminating them. His relatively restrained response suggests an understanding that he could make matters worse by accusing military leaders or former stalwarts of the ruling National Democratic Party of being traitors—an accusation that could lead to the firing squad.
By contrast, it appears that MbS has decided to stanch the threat of defection by cutting it off—quite literally. The crown prince surely found Jamal Khashoggi’s move into the dissident camp especially galling. After all, Khashoggi had been a close advisor of other royal family figures, including Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, the former head of Saudi intelligence, who was not known for his democratic proclivities. Having moved to Washington and secured a major platform in the Washington Post, Khashoggi was well positioned to make the shift from regime defector to a very loud opposition dissident with an international audience.
This was a legitimate move which Khashoggi had every right to make. And it probably provoked the decision by MbS—or his henchmen according to the Saudi government—to make an example of him. In the age of global social media, the terrifying demonstration effect of his murder has cast a shadow that is more far-reaching that that cast by Saddam Hussein’s violent elimination of his supposed opponents. Although some rooms in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul have been repainted and apparently lack any evidence of what transpired there, everyone knows the truth—and that just might be enough.
Will Trump Rescue MbS?
The murder could also be perceived as having gone way beyond what is acceptable. In many monarchies of the Arab world there remains a normative expectation within both elites and the wider populace that even the most autocratic kings will not cross the line into abject despotism or tyranny. In Saudi Arabia—where the clerical establishment sees itself as the epicenter of the Sunni Muslim world, not to mention a pillar of state legitimacy—there are probably some religious leaders who were revolted by Khashoggi’s slaughter. It is also possible that King Salman himself was horrified; but at the old age of 82, he seems more intent on rescuing MbS than disciplining him. Thus, in a phone conversation with Trump, the king reassured the US president that Saudi Arabia had no idea what happened “to our Saudi Arabian citizen.”’
Given the international uproar over Khashoggi’s killing—and Ankara’s skillful, if painful, slow-drip release of the details of that horrible event—Trump has continued to signal his doubts about the official Saudi explanation while trying to somehow suggest that the crown prince should not be held responsible. If the US president does not fully embrace the cover-up and instead signals that MbS no longer has the White House’s support, the crown prince would face greater pressures from within the Saudi royal family. Press reports suggest that these pressures are increasing. Still, Trump cannot disown MbS without undercutting the larger edifice of US Middle East policy. Indeed, the key problem for the White House is that the drive toward full autocracy in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE could foster instability in ways that will hardly be conducive to US security interests. This is not bad news for Iran, the one country about which Washington’s Arab allies are most worried.