Resilience in a turbulent neighborhood

Khashoggi appeared to prefer a reunified Syria under Ba’athist President Bashar Assad over allowing the Kurds’ emerging democracy.

A demonstrator holds picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest in front of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, October 5, 2018 (photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
A demonstrator holds picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest in front of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, October 5, 2018
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
Amid the global media firestorm surrounding the death of Jamal Khashoggi, condemning Saudi Arabia is now the latest en vogue, virtue-signaling fad by politicians and pundits alike.
As differing claims of what allegedly happened in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey on October 2 are widely reported, few bother to offer an honest look into three sobering factors: who Khashoggi really was, the hypocrisy of those pointing fingers, and the drastic fallout if the American-Saudi Arabian partnership begins to erode.
First of all, was Khashoggi really a moderate, progressive reformist? His first major break in reporting came thanks to his close relationship with Osama bin Laden, forged over visits to Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Portrayed in today’s coverage as simply a writer on assignment, at least several photos show Khashoggi brandishing anti-tank and assault weapons alongside al-Qaeda’s jihadists during his missions to compose fawning articles.
Though there are some signs of a mid-90s pivot away from his sympathies with violent jihad, the romanticized, white-washed narrative about Khashoggi is further troubled by his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. “We were hoping to establish an Islamic state anywhere,” Khashoggi once told a fellow journalist. A New York Times report notes that while his outward support of the Muslim Brotherhood became nuanced with time, he “remained conversant in its conservative, Islamist and often anti-Western rhetoric, which he could deploy or hide depending on whom he was seeking to befriend.”
Appearing on Al Jazeera in 2017, Khashoggi blasted Saudi Arabian officials for allowing members of the Saudi media to express support for Israel – and wrote in 2014 that the Jewish state’s existence was “outside the context of history and logic” and would “die by force.”
Many features attempt to minimize his Bin Laden connection. But in 2011, after hearing of Bin Laden’s death, Khashoggi tweeted that he “collapsed crying” and was “heartbroken” for the 9/11 mastermind.
Given Khashogghi’s past and radical ideology, it begs the question how someone like him could rapidly acquire US residency, as he did last year. The grounds for his residency appear rooted in the danger posed by his “dissidence,” as demonstrated by his vocal disappointment in the failure of his brand of Islamism to take hold in Riyadh and elsewhere.
Khashoggi reportedly felt very at home in Turkey, his ancestral homeland and an ideological center that he saw as a base for a new Middle East. The New York Times highlighted that Khashoggi’s “attraction to political Islam helped him forge a personal bond,” with Turkish President Recep Erdogan.
Turkey declares it will not allow the Khashoggi affair to be “a cover-up,” as it seeks to shift attention away from formidable US backlash over the two-year imprisonment of an American pastor, just now freed under the shadow of the current crisis. The Erdogan-controlled media slowly leak their “facts” of the Khashoggi incident to the world. However, they largely cite anonymous sources and rely on unseen evidence. The irony here is appalling.
IN RECENT YEARS, Turkish intelligence agents have snatched over 100 dissidents from 18 countries or more. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Turkey the most prolific jailer of members of the media, with scores held in captivity. If the Khashoggi episode was indeed a botched rendition or interrogation gone wrong, then it seems he had an unfortunate taste of what opponents of both Erdogan regime’s and Khashoggi’s brand of political Islam similarly face.
When the West accepts such conduct from Turkey, it acts as a barometer of acceptable behavior for the rest of the world, and forfeits any moral standing to judge how other allies conduct their internal affairs.
In a tweet last month, Khashoggi bemoaned Syrian Kurdish “excess” and their “separatist tendencies,” writing that support for the Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State was not in the interests of a united Syria. In other words, Khashoggi appeared to prefer a reunified Syria under Ba’athist President Bashar Assad over allowing the Kurds’ emerging democracy.
All of this taken together forces the following question: Why is the “progressive” West so desperate to see something in Khashoggi that simply isn’t there?
Could it be the cynical reason that he was against the current US administration? Even if his opposition to Trump was partly because he was upset over America’s impending terrorist designation of the Muslim Brotherhood? One article in the UK’s Guardian proclaimed that it’s “time for the US to take a stand against the destructive bond that Donald Trump has with Saudi Arabia.” Here again lies a concerning double standard.
When the Obama administration dispatched $1.8 billion in cash to Iran along with countless billions in sanctions relief, it was hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently arrived to Saudi Arabia, the kingdom delivered on a pledge to contribute $100 million toward sorely needed rehabilitation and revitalization of Kurdish-held areas liberated from Islamic State in northeastern Syria.
Critics pan the move as some sort of leverage on the Trump administration, and even suggest that President Trump has some sort of financial conflict of interest when dealing with Saudi Arabia. But never mind that Hillary Clinton raised at least $10 million from Saudi Arabia for her foundation before running for president, and signed off on unprecedented weapons sales to Saudi Arabia as the Obama administration’s top diplomat.
Yet, it’s worth taking a look at what this Trump-Saudi “bond” has accomplished: On President Trump’s inaugural foreign trip, he presided over the launch of Riyadh’s new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, alongside leaders and representatives hailing from 55 Muslim and Arab countries. This comes as Saudi Arabia and other Arabian Gulf states follow President Trump’s call to shoulder more responsibility in countering Iran. Vitally, the US and Saudi Arabia now appear to work together more closely than ever to counter common threats.
ON SAUDI ARABIA’S home front, too, there are encouraging developments. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is pursuing incremental – but bold – economic and social reforms. Under MBS’s Vision 2030, the nation is marshaling vast investment to transition to a diversified, post-oil economy. The social reforms are just as ambitious, with women driving for first time beginning in June.
It’s anyone’s guess why some in the West would gamble this substantive progress against drastic moves that could create an unpredictable, unstable situation.
Yet some influential figures now fantasize that MBS could even be forced out over Khashoggi. Sen. Lindsey Graham declared that MBS “has got to go” – a familiar phrase once directed toward deposed leaders like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak. Progressive plaudits for Sen. Graham’s statement seem to ignore the abysmal, bloody record of regime-change advocates. These policies form the genesis of today’s never-ending carnage and death across the region that began with Afghanistan and Iraq 17 years ago. As one of the region’s last remaining vestiges of stability, Saudi Arabia had every right to respond with forceful statements to resist becoming the latest casualty of foreign intervention.
On top of the call for a royal shakeup, Sen. Graham also declared that the US should “sanction the hell out of” the Gulf kingdom. Recent history shows the potential consequences of such moves. Following the Obama administration’s suspension of military aid to Egypt after the coup against Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, senior Russian officials were fêted in Cairo for the first time since the Egyptian pivot toward the US in the early 1970’s. Similarly, Russian influence in Iraq increases wherever US presence wanes.
So when a number of corporations and officials announced their withdrawal from this week’s Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh – the “Davos of the Middle East” – America’s geopolitical adversaries wasted no time exploiting the slight fissure in the Saudi-American alliance. Russian investors quickly filled vacant spaces at the investment confab.
“Why should we spoil our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Russian President Vladimir Putin pragmatically asked, “without understanding what had happened there?”
The best scenario is that America has learned from recent history, and the withdrawals from the conference are simply a convenient, lower-risk “out” until relations return to business-as-usual.
So, what will be learned from this episode?
Though widely criticized for his sort of wait-and-see approach, President Trump’s relatively steady hand contains potential fallout and prevents a deterioration in one of America’s most vital partnerships. If America shows diminished commitment to a key ally, adversaries like Russia and Iran are keen to seize any opportunity.
Saudi Arabia, then, must be allowed breathing room to conduct an investigation and hold those involved responsible, as it is beginning to do. For Saudi Arabia’s part, it continues to prove resilient amid a tumultuous neighborhood. This, too, will likely pass.
The writer is a Middle East analyst and a field researcher for the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.