Across the region, Saudi Arabia along with the UAE have sought to muzzle dissent. With the world looking away, it thought it could get away with one more murder.
The killing of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia, potentially with the full knowledge of the de facto ruler of the country, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), was not a spontaneous and isolated incident.
As it becomes clear that the journalist’s murder was, in the words of Turkish President Erdogan, planned days in advance, the official Saudi account looks increasingly absurd.
At first glance, one might wonder why the Kingdom might risk so much to kill one single critical individual, but if one takes a closer look at recent Saudi policy, this desperate and savage act emerges from the kingdom’s increasing need to project its power across the region – a policy hinged upon promoting the image of MBS as a ‘reformist’ golden boy.
Khashoggi in this sense was a troublesome thorn in MBS’ side. Khashoggi was, after all, an insider dissident – he tragically became a skeleton in the Saudis' closet, figuratively speaking, because he knew about many of the other skeletons hidden away by the House of Saud.
What perhaps pushed MBS, or those working on his behalf, into this desperate act was precisely the fact that he too –this self-declared supporter of ‘democratic Islam’ of the Muslim Brotherhood variety – was taken seriously by the kind of people MBS himself wanted to garner favour with.
Khashoggi had a platform in the Washington Post, one of the most influential progressive newspapers in the world, from which he could launch his criticisms of the kingdom, its saviour MBS, and its imperialist turn during the ‘Arab Spring’ era.
There is a direct line between the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi – whose death was the spark that lit the Arab spring against autocracy – and the killing of Khashoggi.
The intersecting factor between these two moments in time is the onset of regional counter-revolution – the manner in which MENA’s (Middle East and North Africa) very own version of the Ancien Regime reacted to the huge demographics of oppressed peoples moving against them.
To this end, Saudi Arabia, attempted to rise to the challenge of becoming the vanguard of such counter-revolution within its own perceived ‘zone of influence’.
Though the kind of protests such as those that led to the overthrow of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi and Saleh, or indeed the revolution that rocked the Assad dynasty to its core, did not manifest in Saudi. The House of Saud saw in this wave of egalitarian and democratic change, the traces of its own future death.
In the nascent democracy in Egypt, the region’s largest Arabic-speaking country, led by political forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood offering a democratic alternative – Saudi Arabia saw a potential source of subversion to its populace.
In post-Gaddafi Libya, it feared the similar rise of the democratic General National Council and the National Salvation Government.
In Syria, it saw democratic groups affiliated, often loosely, to the Muslim Brotherhood, take leading roles in both the armed rebellion and the civil opposition.
In Yemen, right on its doorstep, it saw the democratic and Brotherhood-aligned Al Islah emerge as one of the largest political forces that would almost certainly do well in a democratic Yemen.
On all of these fronts, Saudi thus worked to undermine, manipulate and curtail these perceived existential threats.
In Egypt, Saudi and its junior partner in crime the UAE, financially backed the brutal counter-revolution against the first democratically elected president, namely Mohamed Morsi of the Brotherhood’s political wing the Freedom and Justice Party, while it has supported the tyrannical counter-revolutionary forces of Khalifa Haftar in Libya.
In Syria, its will to hegemonise the Syrian opposition all the better to ensure no anti-Saudi democratic ideology gained ground led to a situation where no comprehensive system for materially aiding rebels could be crafted – this was a major boost to Assad.
In Yemen, it was Saudi’s continual delaying of the democratic transition that led to the boiling over of frustrations that provided the conditions necessary for the Houthi-Saleh coup.
This, in turn, birthed Saudi’s brutal assault on Yemen – it seems Saudi would rather see Yemen blighted by perpetual, and ever-more complex, war, famine and division than see any kind of stable democracy arise in that country.
Though Saudi flexed its huge financial petro-muscles to curtail the Arab spring, it didn’t get everything its own way.
Turkey and Qatar resisted the Saudi counter-revolution in various different ways, providing both material backing and safe havens for dissidents fleeing counter-revolution. Turkey refused to recognise Sisi’s coup.
This, of course, enraged Saudi and thus it undertook its siege of Qatar, seeking to knock the tiny state into line and force its own agenda upon it. This dynamic was repeatedly noted by Khashoggi, including in his last ever piece for the Post, in which he wrote, “There are a few oases that continue to embody the spirit of the Arab Spring. Qatar’s government continues to support international news coverage, in contrast to its neighbours’ efforts to uphold the control of information to support the “old Arab order.”
And, of course, Saudi Arabia is the vanguard of the old Arab order.
Which brings us to MBS, who contrary to the hundreds of millions spent in PR to depict him as a young fresh ‘reformer’, acts not merely with the same old savagery often associated with the Saudis, but plunges to a new level of depravity, which includes the killing of Khashoggi.
Though MBS wears the clothes and uses the language of ‘reform’, he has taken some autocratic measures unheard of in the history of the Kingdom. In the name of ‘fighting corruption’ MBS simply got rid of those members of the royal family deemed to be unsupportive of his reign, while bringing in his own loyalists.
His conception of ‘reformism’ extends to creating a dystopia in the Middle East of the old order made new – in new resorts and franchises for the corrupt autocratic super-rich and global corporations, while his war against ‘extremism’ is actually a war against moderating voices within the kingdom, while actual extremists remain in power.
This is precisely what is entailed in his ‘Future Investment Initiative,’ and this is precisely what Jamal Khashoggi was criticising and exposing.
You might even say Khashoggi’s murder was a symbolic murder of everything that MBS and the old order fears – truth, egalitarianism and liberty, or the quest for those things.
It’s perfectly apt that MBS should currently be hosting the so-called ‘Davos in the Desert’ conference in the wake of his potential complicity in the murder of Khashoggi.
Apparently, the crown prince was greeted with cheers and applause by the 2,000-strong audience as he arrived, which included from his fellow King Abdullah of Jordan, as well as a host of US and European corporations.
This, too, is part of the grim continuity of the Arab spring. The old order continues as usual – renewed in the blood of innocents.
But the back-slapping of sycophants aside, with now even the very much MBS-friendly Trump mocking Saudi’s handling of Khashoggi’s murder as "the worst cover-up ever," surely ordinary Saudis must see that the entire ‘civilised’ veneer of MBS has collapsed. MBS now stands exposed in front of the whole world.
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