Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy
Saudi Arabia’s official explanation for the death of Jamal Khashoggi, exiled opponent of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, recalled those offered by the Assassins’ Guild in Terry Pratchet’s Discworld series of comic fantasy stories.
In these novels, set on a flat earth balanced on a quad of elephants swimming through space perched on the back of a giant turtle, victims of assassination would be recorded as having “accidentally disemboweled themselves while shaving.” Riyadh’s excuses were no better.
Their first attempt was to suggest that he died under interrogation, an improvement only on being shot twice in the forehead while trying to escape.
Drawing, one supposes, on the combined support of every one of their fabergé-egg priced lobbyists, Saudi went for something a little more like the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991: resisting arrest. Khashoggi was killed in a “fist fight” that this portly 60 year old former newspaper editor started against a crack team of 15 military and security officials. Who did they want us to think he was – Batman?
Yet Khashoggi’s murder wasn’t just another addition to the list of journalists murdered. Jan Kuciak, Daphne Caruana Galizia, Dimitri Popkov, Nikolay Andruschenko and Viktoria Marinova were investigative reporters, on the journalistic front lines. Khashoggi, a former editor involved in setting up a new venture called Democracy in the Arab World, served on the equivalent of the general staff.
Twice editor of the Al-Watan newspaper, assistant to Prince Turki al-Faisal, who once posed with an AK-47 fighting enemies of the West (and let’s face it, which journalist hasn’t), Khashoggi even befriended a Turkish Islamist by the anme of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Now elected autocrat of Turkey, this Erdogan could not be described as a friend of free speech. As the quip circulating there has it: “A prisoner goes to the library asking for a certain book. The officer manning the library replies: ‘We don’t have the book, but we have the author.’ ”
Erdogan has mounted a strong defence of his murdered friend, including grisly leaks detailing the murder given to pro-Government Turkish papers, the distribution of CCTV footage of the consulate (which Turkish intelligence seems to have had bugged) and a speech to his parliament in which he put pressure on the Saudi King, Salman, to investigate the killing – one which Erdogan implied had been carried out on the orders of bin Salman, known by his initials MBS.
The rivalry between Erdogan and MBS is political as much as it is personal. They offer competing responses to the dilemma that the Arab Spring poses for dictators: how to modernise without democratising. For Saudi, the question is how to survive after oil revenues become too scarce to sustain a growing population unused to work. For Turkey, it’s about economic independence: carving out a sphere protected from Russia, and the European economic superpower to its West.
Erdogan’s model comes from the Muslim Brotherhood (with which Khashoggi was involved at points in his life): religious, suspicious of the West, directed towards strengthening the Sunni Islamic world. As he himself has described it, democracy is a train ride, and it’s important to know at which station to get off. Erdogan’s a deliberate man. He accumulates power slowly, before using it to devastating effect.
Meanwhile, MBS wants a whizzy techno-dictatorship, a Dubai writ large, benefiting from Western money and technology, but without institutions to get in the way of his power. Bearing the same initials as Manchester Business School, he’s a hybrid of Ataturk and Elon Musk.
Both have been drawn in to the instability caused by the Arab Spring. MBS exchanged Saudi’s traditional ambivalence towards the Muslim Brotherhood for reinforcement of the Brotherhood’s enemies, the Egyptian Military and (quietly) Israel. Alarmed at Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, he launched a war there as incompetently executed as Khashoggi himself. With medieval brutality, he had Said Hariri, Prime Minister of Lebanon, kidnapped to repudiate an accommodation made, also under duress, with Hezbollah. And copying China’s Xi Xinping, he had his opponents shaken down with selective charges of corruption. All this has made him enemies in Saudi, which is used to much more consensual aristocratic rule.
Erdogan has made himself protector of the Surian rebels sheltering in Idlib against the vengeance of a regime brought back from the dead with Iranian and Russian support. But, unlike MBS, he opposes Israel (traditional Turkish policy had been to support it) and despite being a NATO member had made overtures towards Russia. Khashoggi’s murder gives him the lever he needs to make common cause with MBS’s numerous opponents inside and outside Saudi Arabia.
Notwithstanding the visit by Gina Haspel, the CIA Director, (and a woman who knows a thing or two about interrogations gone wrong) which seems to have persuaded Erdogan to tone down his parliamentary prosecution of MBS, it’s a lever that Erdogan is determined to keep pushing.