The unintended consequences of killing Jamal Khashoggi

Details of what happened ...

Posted: Dec 29, 2018 6:20 PM
Updated: Dec 29, 2018 6:20 PM

Details of what happened October 2 were being drip-fed by Turkish officials with the narrative skill of TV scriptwriters hooking a global audience into an addictive box set.

The popular journalist and affable raconteur Jamal Khashoggi had been killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

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He'd been suffocated. His body had disappeared. He was allegedly chopped into pieces with a bone saw brought on a private plane.

There were various suggestions that his remains had been dissolved into acid, stuffed down a well or wrapped in a blanket and taken away by a local "collaborator."

As the saga unfolded, the US Senate voted to accuse Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of being behind the killing.

But there's a subplot that might give this body bag of a story a silver lining.

Saudi Arabia admitted, eventually, that The Washington Post columnist had indeed been killed, but that this was not sanctioned by the royal court. Rather, it was a unilateral decision taken on the ground by the head of a team that was supposed, at worst, to abduct Khashoggi and drag him back to the kingdom.

Whatever the Saudis claim, the abiding result of the Khashoggi tragedy has been to paint Saudi Arabia as a vicious, uncivilized land run by a despotic family. Not as the forward-thinking nation and leading light of the modern Islamic world that its crown prince would like to project.

One Saudi critic of the royal court replied to a text I sent him from Riyadh in the first fortnight of covering the story in which I asked, "Whodunnit?"

"Don Corleone."

By referring to the fictitious mafia leader in "The Godfather," the man was perhaps risking his life. Most other contacts in Riyadh to whom I spoke were circumspect to say the least -- sticking firmly to whatever the prevailing narrative was being spun out of the royal court.

So I deleted his text, removed his number from my contacts' list both in my phone and on the cloud -- and destroyed any notes that could have led an investigator to him.

Not since the 1980 docudrama "Death of a Princess," which alleged that Princess Mishaal bint Fahd al Saud was executed on the orders of her grandfather, and her alleged lover beheaded, has Saudi Arabia suffered such reputational damage.

That film, shown on the UK's ITV and on PBS in the United States, resulted in the expulsion of Britain's ambassador to Riyadh.

Khashoggi's killing has led once hard-line, pro-Saudi Republican senators such as Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker to turn on the kingdom with a vengeance.

After meeting with CIA Director Gina Haspel, both senators concluded that the Crown Prince, known by his initials as MBS, was complicit in the unlawful killing.

"There's not a smoking gun, there's a smoking saw," Graham said after the briefing from the CIA boss.

Donald Trump's view of whether MBS knew of or ordered the killing is less clear. "Maybe he did and maybe he didn't," the US President said -- even though he has had the same information from the CIA.

Trump's critics accused him of having a tin ear for human rights and a fetish for powerful men -- a view reinforced by his apparent crush on his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

But as he has observed many times, Saudi Arabia is a vitally important US ally. Indeed, it's a stalwart of the West's fight against violent political Islam, part of the US-led coalition standing against Iran's regional meddling, and the world's second-biggest producer of crude oil.

Saudi Arabia is a vital economic partner, a major consumer of American weapons and an intimate friend when it comes to regional intelligence sharing.

It's also involved in a war in Yemen, which has killed an estimated 85,000 children, according to Save the Children. Another 14 million are at risk of starvation -- among them 400,000 children who are, the United Nations says, on the brink of hunger.

The Saudi-led coalition, which supports the internationally recognized government of Yemen in its fight against the Iranian-backed Houthis, shows no signs of being able to win the war or stave off the humanitarian disaster.

So it's agreed to a ceasefire.

Saudi Arabia cannot afford to be seen, or accused, of causing a famine on its doorstep.

Reeling from the fallout of the Khashoggi case, which it can do little about given the presumption of guilt that's attached itself to the kingdom's most powerful figure, Saudi Arabia needs to do and be seen to be doing "the right thing."

That means backing away from war into peace in Yemen.

It's an unintended but welcome potential ending to the Khashoggi saga's subplot.

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