From Dr Hamid Hussain
Someone asked my two cent worth opinion on ongoing saga of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. More informed people have commented on the subject and many details are still murky. Based on my own work on the Kingdom’s power dynamics in the past, following is may take;
Thanks. With time, we change and our thoughts also evolve. This may be the case with Mr. Jamal Khashoggi and he may have been genuinely convinced that some kind of people’s participation in government is the way forward. However, we need to keep in mind the broader context as this incident is related to struggle inside the royal family. Khashoggi held some progressive views by Saudi Arabian standards related to extreme austere code of Wahabbism. However, he never questioned the legitimacy of the rule of al Saud family. He advocated increased consultation with population on important issues. He was employed by many government newspapers and any significant alternative view no matter how mild is simply a career ending move. He was not a dissident but mild critic of some policies of Prince Muhammad Bin Salman such as blockade of Qatar, Yemen war etc.
There are many Saudis in exile who are much harsher critics of royal family but why Khashoggi? More important to remember is his links with members of royal family who have been sidelined by the meteoric rise of the mercurial Prince Muhmmad Bin Salman (MBS) in 2015. Government’s view is published by a number of influential newspapers (Arab News, Sharq-ul-Awst etc) run by Saudi Research and Marketing Group. Owner of this group is Prince Turki Bin Salman. Khashoggi worked for some of these newspapers in the past. He also worked with former intelligence chief Prince Turki al Faisal and billionaire Waleed Bin Talal. He served in some advisor capacity to Turki projecting his softer image to the outside world. In 2015, Waleed opened a satellite channel Al Arab in Bahrain and in this venture partnered with Bloomberg News. Khashoggi was to be the star kid of Al Arab. This channel lasted mere eleven hours on air before it was shut down by Bahrain; a close Saudi ally and dependent on Saudi forces on its soil to protect its royal family from the restless Shia majority population.
MSB started grand purge on two fronts. One front was to sideline powerful brokers in royal family such as Crown Prince designate Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef; former interior minister, Prince Mitib Bin Abdullah; former head of Saudi National Guard (SNG). Head of SNG is a powerful position as SNG is royal family’s insurance policy against army coup. SNG recruits on tribal basis and head inserts his loyalists at various levels of positions. The second front was to weaken the financial muscle of some princes. This resulted in famous/notorious Ritz Carlton saga of billionaire princes hauled up there until they coughed up billions to get their limited freedom. Waleed was the prized prisoner of Ritz Carlton; the world’s only five star jail. Members of both groups cannot leave the country. On the other hand, other family members who have kept their heads down in the tent like Prince Turki are allowed to travel. With this in background, alleged rumor of an assassination attempt on MBS by his guards raised the fear factor by several degrees. Some reports suggest that most of his inner circle of security is now manned by foreigners.
Where Khashoggi fits into this picture? He was the window of these disgruntled royal family members to the outside world. Everybody in Washington who wanted to know what was happening in the Kingdom would knock at Khashoggi’s door. This was the main threat that MBS feared that angry royal family members may attempt to make some kind of deal with Washington to pull the royal rug from under his feet. A close study of MBS personality suggests that he acts rashly without thinking through and no one around him would even suggest an alternative thought. Hence, a very sloppy operation which is not even an intelligence operation. A rag tag team of guards, special forces people and a forensic doctor was to emulate a Mossad style overseas hit a la 2010 Dubai saga of assassination of a Palestinian operative.
Looking at the fall out of the operation, Khashoggi’s own words seem prophetic that ‘Saudi brand has been severely damaged’. What will be MBS likely response? The old Arab bedouine tradition is that when a big dust storm come down furiously (haboob), the Arab ducks down in his tent covering his head and wait until it passes away. For the next few weeks, MBS will be spending more time in his $500 million yatch parked in red sea than in his palaces. The only suggestion one can give to MBS is the words of one his own elders late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz; “a friend is someone who tells you the truth; not someone who believes in you’.
“Man’s history is waiting in patience for the triumph of the insulted man.” Rabindranath Tagore
Follow up intelligent questions from well informed people were inevitable thus a follow up. I wandered a little bit further as my personal quest of learning about military and conflict is to paint the horrible picture of the killing fields so that we can all avoid filling more graves.
Thanks Sir. You are correct. Trump will give him cover in view of personal/business relationship. However, there is a little bit shift in other power centers. In senate, recent vote to approve munitions to KSA was 53-47; a significant shift against KSA. If in mid-term, democrats take house of representatives, then there will be little more heat. In the long run, KSA is important and MBS cannot be pushed aside without arrangement with alternative leadership from royal family. This usually takes time. However in short term, single point agenda of getting Iran is making things complicated and they don’t want to quarantine MBS/KSA at this stage.
Anti-Iran camp of current administration coupled with almost messianic change in Bibi Netanyahu personality where he thinks his historic role is to strike nuclear assets of Iran is the possible ‘escape hatch’ for MBS. If Bibi wins in elections called early then watch for who he picks for IDF chief; who is retiring by the end of the year. In 2009-15, IDF COS, heads of all three intelligence agencies (Mossad, MI & Shin Bet) pushed Bibi back on military strike against Iran. This was complemented by Obama administration warning to Israelis that they will be alone in the mission with no military or diplomatic cover. Bibi wants a security team that will not second guess his mission. Bibi has covered a lot of ground by appointing his former national security advisor Yossi Cohen as head of Mossad, a more mellow head for Shin Bet and a new director of MI. The only chip left is COS. Two top contenders (Yair Golan & Aviv Kochavi) are their own men especially Kochavi is considered a ‘prince’; very well respected and highly professional man who cannot be bullied. Bibi may go for one of the two juniors ones for the post. If two conditions are met; first Bibi wins elections and still PM and then he picks one of the juniors as IDF COS, then I’ll put chance of Israeli strike on Iran around 50%. To hold the Arab bag, they will need MBS with General Sisi playing the second fiddle. Water is too muddy in the middle east to read tea leaves.
MBS is following the footsteps of all autocrats; thinking that they are invincible and normal rules don’t apply to them even if they see things like Saddam caught like a rat and Qaddafi dragged on the streets. This they watched with their own eyes and not something read in history books of decades or centuries old events. Power has its own logic not comprehended by commoners like us.
I can only think about words of Voltaire when I closely review personalities of three main actors on the stage for coming production; Trump, MBS & Bibi Netanyahu. “If you are desirous of obtaining a great name, of becoming the founder of a sect or establishment, be completely mad; but be sure that your madness corresponds with the turn and temper of your age. Have in your madness reason enough to guide your extravagances, and to not forget to be excessively opinionated and obstinate. It is certainly possible that you may get hanged; but if you escape hanging, you will have altars erected to you”.
As far as bankrupt leadership is concerned, Arab poet and philosopher Nizar Qabani has summed up nicely;
Every twenty years
Comes to us a gambling man
To stake our country and culture
And resources and rivers
And trees and fruits
And men and women
And the waves and the sea
At the gambling table
We die; broken, hated
Cursed like dogs
While our philosopher in his shelter cogitates destruction into victory
In the post-world war II period, in mad search for security, humanity has invented modern and more lethal killing machines to find itself less secure and living in fear. A whole new model of peaceful co-existence emerging from the wretched of the earth is needed. War mongers are busy 24/7 while those who wish peace are sleeping. They need to wake up, shake dust of their clothes and reach to the ‘other’ over the head of their leaders. The question for present generation is whether they will continue to fight the wars of their grandfathers and fathers on the altars of religion, nation etc. or choose a new path.
“Ishmael, my brother hear my plea
It was the angel who tied thee to me
Time is running out, put hatred to sleep
Shoulder to shoulder, let’s gather our sheep”
Shin Shalom, an Israeli Jewish poet