Many experts argue that Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate is an extraordinary incident, signaling an internal power struggle in Riyadh.
The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate has not only triggered a diplomatic scandal of global proportions, but also demonstrated an internal rift within the House of Saud. The reason – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's heavy handed management style.
MBS rose to power sidestepping the old succession order of the kingdom. His father, King Salman, made it easy for him in June 2017. According to the Saudi succession rule, the most senior member of the Saudi family stands as the crown prince. But with Salman appointing his son MBS, a less experienced political neophyte, as crown prince, several senior members of the royal family did not take it well.
Since then, MBS has been cracking down on any sign of dissent, jailing some of the most powerful royal family members on charges such as corruption. MBS doesn't like to even address hints or implicit questions over the legitimacy of him being a crown prince. Since MBS is accused of sending a death squad to eliminate Khashoggi in Istanbul, some experts say the possible murder could be the beginning of a much larger game plan.
“It’s an extraordinary incident which would not have happened under normal conditions,” said Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of the Turkish national intelligence agency. "There should be other fundamental political reasons for his alleged murder other than his dissidence."
According to Ones, it's highly unlikely that Riyadh wasn't aware of the conspiracy to abduct or murder Khashoggi soon after his arrival at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The criminal act, Ones said, points at “a very deep fraction” inside the Saudi establishment and “we do not know if Khashoggi has played a role in its break-up.”
Karen Elliott House, who authored a book “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future,” shares a similar view, calling Khashoggi's case a “sordid episode" which "isn’t best thought of as the clash between an autocratic ruler and a democratic hero.”
“It is more of an internecine conflict,” she wrote in WSJ.
Before being a notable critic of Riyadh, Khashoggi was a powerful insider in Saudi royal circles, running some of the Saudi media operations. He has also had a career in Saudi intelligence under the command of Prince Turki al Faisal, who led the kingdom’s secret service for more than 20 years.
With MBS emerging as a key decision maker in the kingdom, things changed for Khashoggi. Khashoggi had a reputation of being close to the Muslim Brotherhood, he found it hard to find a common ground with MBS and could not come to terms with his policies.
“He had different tasks and also done intelligence work. He went to the US and was writing articles for the WP, criticising Riyadh. His disappearance in the consulate shows that the Saudi state has acted in a way like it’s taking some kind of revenge,” Ones said.
Ones said in autocratic states like Saudi Arabia personal feuds can often translate into revenge.
“By this kind of act, Riyadh wants to show possible opposition forces inside the kingdom that if you go against us, you could meet the same fate as Khashoggi.”
MBS has tried to justify the widespread family purge by introducing himself to the world politics as a reformist statesman whose main focus was to end corruption within the kingdom ranks and to modernise the statecraft with Western tools of governance. But most of his reforms were out of line with Wahhabism, a conservative interpretation of Islam which the House of Saud has championed for several decades.
Back in the late 18th century, Saudi statehood emerged as an old alliance between the Saud royal family and Wahhabism. The alliance set forth that Wahhabi clerical establishment will support the Saudi family and in return the family will recognise Wahhabism as an official sect.
If Khashoggi has been truly murdered under the orders of MBS, the country's religious and political opposition is likely to lodge a strong protest against the crown prince and deal a fatal blow to his rule. The humiliated and isolated members of the royal family could forge a new alliance with a disgruntled faction of the Wahhabi establishment, who abhor MBS’s reforms.
“MBS's policies are catering to young Saudis, but they do not hold the key to power. It is the older generation that has lived through decades of conservative rule, the disenfranchised princes whose access to power has shrunk and the vast religious elites who are now in a position of vassals that legitimise the Saudi royal family,” wrote Yury Barmin, an expert on Russian foreign policy in the Middle East.
“Many of them feel marginalised, which could drive them to extremes and bring about a repeat of 1979,” the Russian expert viewed.
In 1979, about 500 armed men under the leadership of Juhayman al Otaybi, a former Saudi military officer, seized the interiors of the Grand Mosque in Mecca to overthrow the Saudi family, a shocking incident for both the Saudi family and the Muslim-majority countries worldwide.
After two weeks of fighting and with the support of Pakistani and French military, Saudis wrested back control of the mosque. Following the bloody incident, the kingdom backtracked from its modernisation project launched by King Faisal in the 1970s, restoring the most conservative advocates of the Wahabbi establishment to decisive positions.
Any Israeli connection?
Some experts also point out that by allegedly committing such a crime in Istanbul, MBS and his Israeli and American allies might attempt to send a message to Turkey and Iran since both nations are cooperating to end the Syrian conflict and vehemently criticising Israeli policies.
“They [ the Trump administration, Saudi-led Gulf alliance and Israelis] are targeting Turkey and Iran. They want more bloodshed in the Middle East,” said Bulent Orakoglu, the former intelligence chief of the Turkish police department.
“This [alleged] murder has been orchestrated by axis of evil,” to punish Turkey’s opposition to the US embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Orakoglu told TRT World, referring to the Trump administration, Israel, and Saudis.
Israel has been silent about the Khashoggi incident since the beginning. MBS has close relations with Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of US President Donald Trump, who is a strong defender of Israel.
Kushner, a Jewish American and a close friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has played a key role in forming relations between the Trump administration and the Saudis, MBS in particular, lobbying for him in Washington. Since then, he has also played a crucial intermediary role between the Saudis, the Trump administration and Israelis.
"From Israel to Jordan to Egypt to Saudi Arabia and beyond, many leaders are fighting to modernize their countries," said Kushner during the ceremony of US embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
"In confronting common threats and in pursuit of common interests, previously unimaginable opportunities and alliances are emerging," Kushner concluded.
But the Khashoggi crisis could turn things upside down for the blossoming Saudi-US alliance. Both anti-Trump American media and prominent US politicians, including senior senators, question the possible implications of Kushner’s partnership with MBS.
By disclosing the incident in detail and in a professional manner to the international media, “Turkey seems to have halted the activities of this axis of evil,” said Orakoglu.