Trump and Mohammed bin Salman 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Trump and Mohammed bin Salman 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey will irretrievably tarnish Saudi Arabia’s reputation in Western public opinion, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

On 2 October, a self-exiled Saudi citizen walked into a Saudi consulate in Turkey, apparently to obtain documents related to his wedding to a Turkish national. Jamal Khashoggi did not re-emerge, however. He is presumed dead.

According to Turkish accounts, a team of 15 Saudis tortured, murdered and dismembered Khashoggi.

It was almost two weeks before Turkish investigators were allowed into the Saudi consulate to conduct an investigation, during which time a cover-up cleaning operation was undertaken.

Saudi-directed murder

But Turkish authorities insist they have the entire gruesome event filmed and taped, and on Saturday vowed to reveal the “truth” of events according to media headlines. They have likely been withholding the footage as it would confirm espionage of the consulate, which is illegal.

It is also likely that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has a series of quarrels with the Saudis in the Middle East, like their support for the el-Sisi dictatorship in Egypt, hopes to blackmail the Saudis for concessions.

However, details are emerging about the hitmen. They had come from Saudi Arabia specifically to target Khashoggi for his critical reporting of Saudi Arabia, especially its murderous intervention in Yemen since March 2015.

According to the Washington Post, for which Khashoggi worked while resident in Virginia in the US, nine of the assassins had ties to Saudi security forces and four are directly linked to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The official Saudi line on the killing was initially that it was just an interrogation gone wrong – but this has evolved into an unlikely assertion by their public prosecutor on state television that Khashoggi died after a fight broke out between himself and those who came to meet him at the consulate in Istanbul, over whether he would return to Saudia Arabia. There is still no word from the Kingdom about what has been done with Mr Khashoggi’s body.

All this seems to aim at whitewashing the Crown Prince, a self-branded moderniser of the authoritarian and conservative Middle Eastern kingdom.

Western hypocrisy

Western reaction to Khashoggi’s disappearance has been cautious or even apologetic. US President Donald Trump predictably led the way. After a phone call with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Trump ventured that Khashoggi had been the victim of ‘rogue killers’.

Responding to the Associated Press, Trump railed: ‘Here you go again with “You’re guilty until proven innocent.” … I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned. So we have to find out what happened.’

The contrast with the reaction to the Novichok incident in the UK in March 2018 is astonishing. Western leaders and media then reacted to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal as if they knew with certainty that Russia and Vladimir Putin were to blame.

Moreover, previous similar behaviour by the Saudis has largely gone unpunished in the West. A dictatorship, the Saudi state locks up human rights activists seemingly at will. Last November, the Saudis detained Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, for two weeks in an attempt to engineer a friendlier government.

According to the Economist, moreover, ‘Even spiriting Mr Khashoggi out of Turkey would have had precedent. In March a women’s-rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, was detained in Abu Dhabi and whisked back to Saudi Arabia, where she remains in jail.’

Now that a US resident and reporter for the Washington Post was the target of atrocious Saudi misconduct, however, Western media outlets have reacted with greater force.

The pressure of public opinion became such that, finally, after over two weeks, the UK trade secretary, Liam Fox, and US Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, announced they would boycott a major economic forum in Saudi Arabia nicknamed ‘Davos in the desert’.

But Western policy makers have been at pains to respond with moderation. European foreign ministers managed a meek: ‘There needs to be a credible investigation to establish the truth about what happened, and – if relevant – to identify those bearing responsibility for the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi and ensure that they are held to account.’

Trump himself has reacted negatively to calls to cut off trade with Saudi Arabia. ’That would be hurting us,’ Trump said last week. ‘We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country.’ He was referring, among other things, to the $110 billion in arms deals signed during his visit to Saudi capital Riyadh in 2017.

Pecunia non olet – money doesn’t smell!

Trump does not want to anger the oil-rich Saudis, who have threatened retaliation if hit by sanctions. Riyadh also happens to be the second-biggest arms importer in the world: 61% of its imports come from the US. It is America’s largest single military customer.

The UK participates in this bonanza, selling arms worth £1.5bn in 2017. The UK and Saudi Arabia agreed a goal of £65 billion of mutual investment in March 2018.

Indeed, ties run deeper than just oil and arms sales. The Western powers have come to rely on the Saudis as a key ally in a volatile but oil-rich region ever since the Second World War, when the country was declared of ‘vital interest’ to the United States. As the Western empires were in decline, there was fear that nationalist or Soviet-inspired regimes would stop the flow of oil westwards.

Despite occasional frictions, the reactionary nature of the domestic regime in Saudi Arabia led it to always ally with the West for fear of Soviet or Arab nationalist destabilisation. The relationship became even closer after the Iranian Revolution, as the Saudis represented a centre of Sunni power against Shiite Iran, which was in conflict with the United States.  

Moreover, the Saudis and America both backed the mujahideen in Afghanistan, which led to the rise of the most famous Saudi, Osama Bin Laden. The latter’s citizenship was revoked as early as 1992, but there are constant reports of Saudi donors being the biggest funders of Islamist terror groups across the world.

Despite this, the Western powers have continued to be on friendly terms with the Saudi government. Even after the end of the Cold War, the US allied with Saudi Arabia against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, setting up military bases in the Kingdom. Moreover, Saudi oil money has flowed into the United States since the 1970s, financing unknown but probably significant amounts of US debt.

It is unsurprising that the Saudis are not afraid of the most brazen attempts at sleaze and corruption. In the UK, a Channel 4 investigation showed that, ‘33 MPs have been on Saudi-funded trips to the Kingdom, since its troops entered Yemen in 2015. On most occasions, all expenses were covered. In total, British MPs have accepted more than £208,000 worth of trips since 2015.’

Atrocities exposed: millions face starvation

The height of Saudi-Western cooperation has probably been reached since the beginning of the Arab Spring. The Saudis became part of the counter-revolutionary axis, moving directly against democracy demonstrations in Bahrain, supporting the military in Egypt, increasingly openly allying with Israel against Iran, and funding reactionary groups in Syria.

Afraid of domestic unrest and Iranian influence, the Saudis also intervened in the Yemen civil war in March 2015. This is an intervention that has had full British backing. Then Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, said in 2015: ‘We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat’.

This support has led to what the United Nations agency coordinating relief efforts to Yemen – the World Food Programme – has labelled the world’s worst famine in over a century. Just weeks ago, it stated that 8.5 million Yemenis on the brink of famine, but it has now stated that this was an underestimate, with another 5.6 million in danger.

Not unsurprisingly, increased scrutiny of Saudi Arabia in recent weeks has finally led to wider questions about its role. Labour MP Lloyd Russel-Moyle has asked “Why is Saudi Arabia under fire over Jamal Khashoggi, but not Yemen?”

The question could be posed to almost 100 of his colleagues in the PLP, many critics of Jeremy Corbyn, who rebelled against their leader in the Commons in his attempts to bring the government to account over its support for the Saudis in Yemen in a vote in October 2016.

But it could be posed more widely of Western establishments and their allies who have wrought death and destruction in the Middle East and other parts of the world for decades without batting an eyelid. And, thanks to the increasing recklessness and arrogance of the West’s allies, more and more people are posing uncomfortable questions about Western foreign policy.

Stop Arming Saudi, Stop Bombing Yemen – Stop the War Coalition parliamentary meeting

Tuesday 30 October, 5pm
Committee Room 9, House of Commons

Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP, Brighton Kemptown
Kim Sharif, Human Rights for Yemen
Ahmed Almoaiad, Sheba for Human Rights & Democracy
Lindsey German, Stop the War Coalition

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.