Much to the displeasure and discomfort of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (more widely known as MbS), the ghost of Jamal Khashoggi refuses to die. More than two years after Saudi agents close to MbS brutally killed the journalist-turned-dissident inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 and dismembered his body parts in the woods nearby, the murder has come under renewed public attention and scrutiny in Washington. In late February, literally a day after President Joe Biden’s telephonic conversation with King Salman, the US released an intelligence report that contained a simple but powerful finding: “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi”, a columnist for The Washington Post.
Even before this, one could notice some uneasiness between Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration. Despite his bonhomie with the administration and his personal friendship with Jared Kushner—Trump’s son-in-law and adviser—things were not that cosy. The Saudi crown prince’s last visit to the US happened in March 2018, months before the Khashoggi murder in October and none since then. In contrast, MbS has met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi four times since the Khashoggi affair: during G20 summits in Buenos Aires (2018) and Osaka (2019) and their bilateral state visits in 2019.
Overruling the intelligence assessment, the Trump administration did not act against the Saudi leader despite uproar from the international media, domestic human rights groups and public campaign from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the neo-Ottomanist Turkish president. Things would not be the same under Biden when the administration has been flagging human rights as its major foreign policy priority. Hence, in addition to releasing the intelligence assessment, the administration imposed sanctions against 76 Saudi citizens, including the former deputy head of the country’s intelligence. However, dampening the scope for direct personal sanctions against MbS, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki underscored the American policy of not sanctioning “leaders of countries where we have diplomatic relations or even some where we don’t have diplomatic relations”. Still, she chose to add: “Behind the scenes, there are a range of diplomatic conversations.”
This is easier said than done as three factors limit the options before the Biden administration. One, the success of its re-engagement with Iran, a key pillar of Biden’s strategy, rests on securing a modus vivendi with Riyadh, something the then US President Barack Obama failed to achieve when concluding the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015. Saudi understanding and cooperation are also necessary to minimise the humanitarian catastrophe in war-torn Yemen. With Biden still unable to establish a personal warmth with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, alienating Riyadh would be fatal for Washington’s Middle East policy.
Two, President Biden talking directly to ailing King Salman is seen as a diplomatic snub to MbS. But Washington will not be able to ignore MbS for long. Since he was named the designated successor in June 2017, MbS has consolidated his position and powers, minimised domestic challenges through coercion and presented himself as a moderniser of the ulema-dominated Wahhabi political system. Hence, sooner or later, the Biden administration will have to directly deal with MbS, especially when the latter takes over the reigns.
Three, the killing has been used by many to vilify and isolate the al-Sauds, but the Khashoggi affair also raises the larger problem of political murders as a state policy. Since the Ides of March, assassination has long been an integral part of politics. If Julius Caesar fell to an intrigue of his former friends, palaces are a favourite venue for umpteen political killings and murder plots. While enemies of the states are the prime targets, rulers have also not hesitated to ‘silence’ their domestic opponents. The laundry list is endless: democracies, republican regimes, monarchies and despots have recognised its usefulness and employed assassination as a state policy; some eliminated their foreign enemies, and others ‘silenced’ domestic critics. Thus, assassinations have become universal and non-discriminatory for all types of regimes. Moral impugnation is often overruled in favour of regime interests.
Thus, despite the expansion of diplomatic tools and other strategic instruments, premeditated political killings continue to be pursued as useful, if not effective, state policy. Over time, technological innovations changed the modus operandi. They include innocuous hit-and-run accidents, exploding mobiles, booby-trapped cars, helicopter-borne missiles, drone strikes, poisonous injections, palladium-laced coffee and now chilling bone saws. As the term expresses, assassination is political murder and is brutal, especially if the graphic details of the victim’s last moments become public. Indeed, when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia carries out death sentences by public beheading, the brutality of the Khashoggi killing should not be a surprise.
Above all, there is a chilling reminder. In recent months, two senior Iranian officials—military commander Qasem Soleimani and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh—were killed by states hostile to the Islamic Republic. These assassinations were carried out on the orders of democratically elected leaders and justified in the name of security and in preventing future deaths. Before initiating any moves against MbS, Biden might ponder: Are their killings less humane and more ethical than Khashoggi’s?
P R Kumaraswamy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there