OPINION: The Kingdom And MBS After Khashoggi — A Mirage Dissolves

Qanta Ahmed | Author, Land of Invisible Women

The international fallout continues following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose death was honored at a memorial service in London this week.

Though the Saudi Arabian Attorney General Saud Al Mojeb has met with his counterpart in Turkey, Turkey is yet to release much of its surveillance to the Kingdom but has made clear the operation was pre-planned.

Human Rights Watch confirms that Khashoggi’s eldest son, Saleh, fled to the United States. After Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan, or MBS, paid a personal condolence call to Khashoggi’s eldest son, travel bans — that were imposed on the Khashoggi family by the Kingdom immediately after the journalist’s disappearance — were lifted.

Weeks after Khashoggi’s death, few certainties remain. Certainly, with his brutal murder, the mirage of MBS as a reformer has forever dissolved. The aftermath of the admitted crime threatens to submerge the notoriously private Kingdom with a lasting pariah status, tainting the echelons of the ruling Al Saud family.

Following the Kingdom’s painfully delayed acknowledgment — and muddled conflicting reports of the actual circumstances — surrounding Khashoggi’s death earlier this month, additional denials of involvement and definitive answers remain elusive.

CIA Director Gina Haspel dispatched by the United States to Turkey to investigate the murder has added further confirmation of the brutality of Khashoggi’s death by confirming she had listened to audio recordings of the journalist’s final moments.  The United Nations Human Rights Chief Michele Bachelet has now called for independent international experts to assist into the Khashoggi inquiry.

Amidst the increasing international vilification and condemnation of the Kingdom, Adel Al-Jubeir, Saudi’s Foreign Minister, has said Crown Prince Mohammed “was not aware of” the operation that resulted in Khashoggi’s death according to reports.

Stories and accounts are shifting and particular focus has been on a “forensic autopsy specialist,” a pathologist, who stands accused of using a bone saw to dismember Khashoggi. Reports differ on whether the journalist was dead or alive during his alleged dismemberment, but the devastating accusations continue.

As a critical care medicine physician who practiced at Saudi Arabia’s flagship National Guard Health Affairs quaternary level medical center in Riyadh for two years, I am horrified at this act on behalf of all my Saudi physician colleagues who practiced alongside me.

Certainly, the gruesome killing of Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s recent admission to the murder is alarming on many levels. Compounding the horror is what appears to be the failure of critical media analysis in the context of history and the ability to find the whole truth.

The understandably widespread outrage concerning this latest death exceeds the horror at learning of the deaths of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl beheaded by Al Qaeda in Pakistan, American journalist James Foley decapitated on camera by ISIS and the murder of acclaimed British war correspondent Marie Colvin in Syria by an Assad regime airstrike.

No previous death of journalists and hundreds of the more than  66 journalists who have been killed this year globally have triggered U.S. Senate threats of withdrawing American arms deals to the Kingdom worth $110 billion.

Publicly, the Kingdom is already paying the price, even as it attempted to save face at a much diminished Davos in the Desert meeting recently.

Sir Richard Branson halted talks of a $1 billion investment project with Saudi Arabia. Editors of the New York Times, the Financial Times and the Economist pulled out of an event sponsored by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Davos in the DesertJamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase and Treasury secretary Steve Munchin also pulled out of the event. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she will halt exports of military equipment to Saudi Arabia pending the investigation.

Even so, it may not be all doom and gloom for the Kingdom. France just announced bilateral, multibillion Euro-cultural agreements with the Kingdom this week with French President Emmanuel Macron confirming plans to develop Al-Ulla Province, born of a personal commitment of the president to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, to see through a network of museums and archeological sites three times larger than Paris’ Louvre Abu Dhabi.

France has also confirmed memoranda of understanding with Saudi Arabia with the Pompidou Center, the Opera, the Institute De Monde Arabe and the film school — all cemented during the Crown Prince’s visit to Paris this Spring.

In other words, for some, it’s business as usual.

While media analysis could be critical and offer historical insights, little mention has been made that Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan authorized the greatest clamp-down on journalists in recent times, along with the mass silencing of Turkey’s academics and intellectuals.

Newsweek has reported that under Erdogan over 180 media outlets have been shut down, and approximately 2,500 journalists and media professionals terminated from their positions.

In 2018, the World Press Freedom Index ranked Turkey 157th out of 180 nations — between Rwanda and Kazakhstan. More than one-third of the world’s jailed journalists are locked up in Turkish jails.

In the words of Reporters Without Borders, Turkey is “the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists spending over a year jailed prior to trial and long sentences and sometimes sentenced to life without pardon.”

Though Turkey claims to have audio and videotapes of the assassination, they have reportedly yet to share them widely. After Erdogan promised to reveal the “naked truth” of the murder, he announced  Khashoggi’s murder was “savage” and “pre-planned” and far from instantaneous.

Calling for accountability, the world leader responsible for imprisoning more journalists than any other leader today ratcheted up the pressure on the increasingly isolated and beleaguered Kingdom.

While I have no insider information, many believe as I do that Khashoggi was marked for rendition. Khashoggi had been critical of the renewed repressions under MBS, and directly critical of the Crown Prince, even as he was supportive of the concept of reform. Though like the Crown Prince, describing Khashoggi as a “dissident” or “reformer” is also inaccurate.

While not wishing him this grim fatal outcome or dismissing accountability for his murder, Khashoggi had a complicated past. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood at the same time as Osama Bin Laden, with whom he had years of dialogue, and was also an enthusiast supporting the Afghani Mujahideen during the 10-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Though his politics changed, as recently as this August, he argued in the Washington Post of the democratic nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. And some journalists have reported he was working on an effort to form a political platform to advance a pro-democratic, anti-Saudi monarchy group with Qatari funding within Turkey.

From his self-exile, aligned with Islamist Turkey, it appears Khashoggi continued to criticize the Crown Prince and the Kingdom, and he far underestimated MBS’ possible retaliation in the context of his historic aggression toward opponents.

Three Saudi princes have been abducted since MBS came to power. His flagrant ruthlessness in detaining 11 senior royals in the Ritz-Carlton — all stage managed by the same Saudi Arabia attorney general now struggling to contain the fallout — and seizing their wealth was achieved without triggering intense international criticism.

Two of his detainees, Prince Al Waleed bin Talal and Prince Turki Al Faisal, both with deep ties to the United States. Both these detainees were former patrons of Khashoggi.

Khashoggi’s murder comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is increasingly promethean in its grip. MBS has kept imprisoned women who were pro-driving activists, even after lifting the driving ban. MBS has also imprisoned female Shiite protestors who have been agitating in Riyadh’s oil-rich Empty Quarter.

Some of these activists and critics are facing the death — among them the first Saudi woman to ever face the death sentence for protesting predicting possibly the future execution of the Saudi driving activists.

Certainly, this human rights abomination is the basis for global outcry. A journalist, whatever his politics, was murdered, at the order of a foreign government, violating all international laws as well as humanitarian and moral obligations to the sanctity of life.

As details unfold, it is in this vacuum of the mirage of MBS the reformer dissipates as many realize they may have overlooked MBS as a threatening figure from the moment he seized power through soft coup.

It is an unfathomable result from the lack of accountability, making it seem implausible the whole truth can ever be revealed and, like the mirage of reform, it too will dissolve into the horizon.

Qanta A. Ahmed is a physician, author of “In the Land of Invisible Women,” council member of the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Institute and member of the Council on Foreign Relations.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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