Saudi Arabia’s regime is a stain on the modern world.
And the Saudi state’s decades-old campaign to export an extreme, fundamentalist version of political Islam, funded by vast amounts of oil money, is a world-wide political pollutant.
All political and workers’ rights are severely restricted in Saudi Arabia. All public gatherings, including peaceful demonstrations, are prohibited under a 2011 order made by the Ministry of the Interior. The country’s significant Shiite minority, based in the oil-rich East, is seriously repressed. Women’s rights are restricted by segregation and a male-guardian system.
Saudi Arabia carried out nearly 600 executions between early 2014 and April 2018. Nearly 150 people were beheaded in 2017.
Now, with the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, Saudi Arabia is under intense scrutiny and political pressure. It seems that the Turkish authorities have a great amount of evidence that links the Saudi leadership directly to the crime.
How can the incompetence and brazenness of the murder be explained? And the unusual strength of international condemnation of the Saudis?
In his early 20s Khashoggi studied in the US and was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Jamal Khashoggi began his journalistic career as a supporter of the Saudi monarchy covering the mujahideen’s Afghan war against the Russians in the 1980s. In Afghanistan he met Osama bin Laden and was sympathetic to the Islamists’ war.
By the mid-90s Khashoggi appears to have come to the conclusion that the Afghan Islamist insurgency had been a disaster for Afghanistan. He interviewed bin Laden in Sudan in 1995 and attempted to get bin Laden to oppose terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden refused, saying he had a duty to drive America from Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi was close to various leading Saudi royals. He acted as a spokesperson in Washington and a newspaper editor in Saudi Arabia, getting into trouble for opposing Islamist extremism.
The decisive break between Khashoggi and the Saudi establishment came in 2011. Khashoggi supported the Arab Spring; the Saudi monarchy saw the Arab uprisings as an existential threat.
Following 2011 the Saudis became extremely hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, which became a banned terrorist organisation two years later. The Saudis backed the military overthrow of the Morsi/Brotherhood government in Egypt, in 2013, which Khashoggi opposed.
Khashoggi remained close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of Khashoggi’s friends were members and he was a personal friend of the Turkish Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud became Saudi king in January 2015 and his son, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MbS), became Crown Prince in June 2017. MbS is in day-to-day control of Saudi politics and is ruthlessly pursuing a modernisation programme known as Vision 2030. He aims to diversify the Saudi economy from dependence on oil.
MbS has introduced some limited reforms: allowing women to drive, opening some cinemas, curbing the rights of the religious police and suppressing some religious extremism. However he has also severely repressed all opposition.
In November 2017 hundreds of Saudis were arrested, including various royals, who were held at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh. Moderate political opponents have been rounded up and jailed.
Khashoggi texted a friend, “This kid [MbS] is dangerous, I’m under pressure... to be ‘wise’ and stay silent.” In 2017 Khashoggi fled Saudi Arabia and went into exile. Khashoggi also began a regular column for the Washington Post’s international online platform.
The careless stupidity of Khashoggi’s murder is explained by highly personalised, unaccountable and brutal rule of MbS who is used to doing anything he wants without explanation or justification. And MbS’s belief in his own untouchability has been strengthened by his belief that Trump and the US will back him.
Khashoggi’s killing, and all its disgusting details, have provoked widespread media comment and outrage.
In the US prominent Republicans have called for sanctions against Saudi Arabia and publicly named MbS as being responsible for the murder. Germany has halted arms sales and dozens of delegates have pulled out of a high-profile economic conference.
Normally Saudi Arabia gets away without much Western criticism because of its oil power and the scale of its economic ties to the West. But the European governments now seem alarmed by MbS’s behaviour. Emmanuel Macron, the French President, had to intervene to secure the release of Saad Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, who was lured to Saudi Arabia in 2017, beaten, and forced to resign.
The EU states are critical of the strange and destabilising Saudi blockade of Qatar that MbS began in June 2017.
Although the US and UK —shamefully — support the imperialist, bullying Saudi war on Yemen, which has caused vast suffering inside Yemen, the war rumbles on without end.
What next? Perhaps the Turkish state will be — in the end — bought off. Hopefully the full facts will emerge and the Saudi state will be examined much more critically in future.
In the UK we must demand an end to arm sales and to support for the Saudi war in Yemen.