The disappearance and murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last month has elevated a moderately known Saudi journalist, who some have referred to as a political dissident, to an iconic figure that has come to represent a complex web of politics in the Middle East.
Khashoggi’s tragic death has become somewhat of an umbrella syndrome — a focal point for the causes and issues surrounding deep-rooted crises in Saudi Arabia and the region, and a way for analysts to interpret and predict developments and policies, both regionally and internationally.
The construction of this syndrome has included personal, professional, social and political references. On the personal level, this was a man who received quality education from a top US university, and who adopted reasoned and well thought through political positions, whether we agree with them or not. Professionally speaking, Khashoggi had attained a decent level of international success as a journalist — rare among Saudi journalists — that had furnished him with political connections, experiences and tools. Socially, Khashoggi’s family, or class, is aligned with the Saudi royal family in terms of wealth, power and influence. Politically, he was a prominent figure in the Saudi reformist movement, which grew after 9/11 in response to pressure from George W. Bush, the international invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and to counter neo-conservative currents within the Saudi administration.
The targeting of someone of this caliber sent the intended message to all Saudis that they are potential targets. The reformist movement, with which Khashoggi was affiliated, gained in influence and prominence during the initial years of King Abdullah’s reign (which began in 2005). However, the Arab Spring revolutions transformed conceptions of reformation and its perceptions by the ruling regime.
While many of Khashoggi’s associates have adapted and aligned themselves with such developments, the journalist remained staunchly committed to his critical views, while the Saudi regime endorsed and sponsored regional counter-revolutions, including standing against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in partnership with the UAE, in an attempt to weaken their influence regionally, from Morocco and Tunisia to Kuwait. This marked an official departure from those who viewed the Brotherhood as a non-violent, non-extremist group. This perspective had the potential for change when the ailing King Abdullah passed away and Crown Prince Salman was to take the throne, considering his former connections with the Brotherhood domestically and regionally. However, once Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince and the leader of the country, such hopes were dashed as he waged a relentless war against the Brotherhood, became more deeply embroiled in the Yemeni conflict and entered into an alliance with Israel against Iran, at the expense of the rights and interests of Palestinians. Such actions led him to fail to establish an understanding with Turkey or with the Brotherhood through Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the leader of the Brotherhood-affiliated Nahda Party in Tunisia.
Khashoggi parted ways with the Saudi leadership irrevocably and left for voluntary exile, continuing to write critically on regional affairs and Saudi involvement.
His death shows a paradox, or a dissociation, between the “modern” Saudi reformist project — upon which the crown prince was attempting to establish his legitimacy internationally — and the primitive approach to decision-making evidenced by this reckless, impetuous act of murder, and the forced disappearance of a writer who didn’t even have significant disagreements with the regime or was participating in domestic politics beyond journalism.
But this must be understood in terms of the historical relationship between the Saudi regime, the press and freedom of expression. Until the late 1970s, the Saudi leadership had commissioned Arab and foreign journalists to advocate for its interests and criticize its opponents, establishing newspapers and television networks overseas with fewer restrictions, but still toeing the party line and agreeing to distribute special editions inside Saudi Arabia. The emergence of satellite television and the spread of the internet, however, challenged this order, and Khashoggi’s death may be partly the result of this loss of control.
Yet, such arbitrariness and recklessness is also visible in Saudi policy under bin Salman’s leadership — the detention of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri against his will and speculations of measures used to persuade him to resign, for example, as well as the detention of princes and influential businessmen in what was hailed as an anti-corruption campaign in Saudi Arabia to protect the rights and assets of the state. We might add to this unchecked Saudi aggression in Yemen, and the decision to withhold Saudi oil from Egypt in response to the vote in the UN Security Council for a Russian draft resolution on Syria, to which the KSA had objected. The Saudi leadership also threatened the Kuwaiti administration to accept reconciliation to its benefit in the border crisis, prompting the Kuwaitis to ally with Turkey.
The Saudi royal family and much of Saudi society are disillusioned by the reckless actions of the crown prince and its impact on international perceptions of the country, which hasn’t been helped by the leaked details implicating the Saudi leadership and intelligence in Khashoggi’s death.
Arab countries closely connected with Riyadh have largely refrained from political analysis following Khashoggi’s death, and pro-Israel currents in the US have attempted to remove bin Salman from critique to protect their interests. What will the US president do? Will he uphold this special relationship he has with the crown prince against all political or moral considerations? If the protection of financial and political interests dominates the debate and any action on this occasion, Khashoggi syndrome will signify an era in which governments publicly become criminal gangs, and will hail the rise of the ultra-right wing globally.
Khashoggi’s death is a manifestation of an old struggle between regression and modernity in Arab political culture, between exclusionary authoritarianism and democratic inclusion, in addition to forces trying to protect Arab and Islamic identities and dealing with the influence of Israel in the region. His murder signifies a struggle between the values of an international community and its laws and regulations and charters, and the rise of right-wing politics — both chauvinistic and capitalistic, and a tendency toward pre-law and pre-regulation era politics. In life, of course, Khashoggi would not have come to symbolize high politics in such a way.