Saudi Arabia was caught torturing, murdering, and dismembering Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018. Failing to deflect blame and appease their Turkish accusers, after almost two weeks, the Saudis finally admitted that agents of the Kingdom were responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. Saudi leadership has, however, attempted to skirt responsibility by seeking the death penalty for five suspects connected to the Khashoggi case. The House of Saud under the leadership of King Salman is responding to building international backlash with a poorly orchestrated PR campaign solely designed to shield the Kingdom’s most powerful family members from culpability. World leaders like US President Donald Trump, who appears more than willing to sacrifice US moral standing to placate Saudi’s Turkish accusers, may buy into the Saudi narrative, but the world’s population already knows the truth. No matter how many loyal servants of the Kingdom are executed for the slaughter of Khashoggi, it will not change the fact that the world knows the Saudi monarch had someone assassinated in a terrifyingly brutal way.
Enlisting a fall guy and sacrificing a scapegoat is key to absolving an errant organization of wrongdoing. Unfortunately for the Saudi government, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had grown so emboldened by the unchecked power his father bestowed upon him that he acted rashly and brazenly. With even the CIA, which has utilized the help of the Saudis in their more unscrupulous operations, concluding bin Salman must have personally ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, King Salman finds himself burdened with a terrible decision. He can try to wait out the controversy and hope the world forgets. In all likelihood, the Khashoggi story will fade, but the damage has been done. Although Khashoggi was a critic of bin Salman and a former Kingdom insider with potentially damning inside knowledge, it is unlikely Khashoggi was a critically dangerous individual to the Kingdom or bin Salman personally. What his assassination, therefore, demonstrates is that Saudi Arabia routinely engages in this kind of behavior to suppress dissent.
Thanks to its bloody war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen and its brutal crackdown on protesters during its own Arab Spring Revolution, the world has already witnessed the savagery of the Kingdom. What the Khashoggi assassination does is take Saudi Arabia out of the same category as the United States, Turkey, and Israel, i.e. “civilized” nations that engage in justifiable wars, to place it into the same category as Iran and Syria. Just as Iran and Iraq under the leadership of Saddam Hussein saw their relationships with the West sour in the wake of similar revelations, the Kingdom faces similar prospects. While the Saudis are not likely to become the enemy of the West, Saudi Arabia’s Western ties could grow cold. This could have implications for the entire region. European foreign policy strong reflect human rights concerns. The US has a vested interest in securing Middle Eastern oil to secure global the global supply of oil, but it has its own supply. Turkey is a NATO ally, but the relationship is troubled while the Trump Administration does not see Middle Eastern terrorism as a pressing US concern. Trump has pledged so much support for Israel that it has emboldened Israeli hardliners to publicly share their extremist positions, but he is fickle and his failing peace initiative is a political liability. In short, the Khashoggi assassination could escalate US and broader international disengagement from the Middle East.
Furthermore, the reason Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein lost US support has nothing to do with shifting national and international interests. Tensions are a consequence of democracy in the US and US politics. The American People could not accept leaders who publicly embraced bloodthirsty warlords with open arms, thus situations in Iran and Iraq demanded regime change. Because regime change did not happen, Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein had to become enemies of the United States. Although the Saudis likely understand the influence of US democracy, it is also important to recognize the sentiments behind the Arab Spring Revelations never died. Tyrannical crackdowns and terrorism may have broken the momentum behind the Arab Spring Revelations, but the Middle East is still democratizing as it is globalizing while it is still undergoing a major social, political transformation. The Peoples of the Middle East are becoming one and they are seeking responsive governance that reflects their interests. They already hate their own and each others’ governments, which are cooperating against their Peoples to stay in power. Incidents like the Khashoggi assassination motivate the Peoples of the Middle East to unite.
The kingdoms of the Middle East are imperiling their futures. For allies like the US, support of the heavily-handed governments of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel means the US could become an enemy of the Middle Eastern Peoples, which makes the US a target of terrorism, i.e. the liabilities of supporting Middle Eastern allies are growing more and more costly. For King Salman of Saudi Arabia, there is a compelling interests for his Kingdom to demonstrate Saudi Arabia is not the Kingdom of assassins. To do this, he will likely have to sacrifice his most beloved son and, perhaps, his throne. It will certainly be a victory for the growing list of enemies the bloodline of Salman has accrued over the King’s short rule, yet it may be the only way to vindicate the monarch and secure Saudi Arabia. Salman must become the fall guy for the whole House of Saud. Alternatively, King Salman can try to weather the storm. He can probably survive for a fair amount of time. His successor may even be able to repair the damage his son has done. It will, however, be very difficult for his successor to bring Saudi Arabia back into the good graces of the International Community and recapture the blind support of the world population, especially if the King holds onto power for a protracted period of time. Going forward, the Kingdom will face intensifying scrutiny that it may not be able to withstand.
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