Saudi Arabia’s political leaders are accused in the alleged murder of one of their citizens, Jamal Khashoggi. This incident has incited heckles from many Western political figures, but the clamour and smoke of loud indignation is noteworthy because it stands in contrast to at best muffled criticism and and general support of Saudi Arabia’s previous and ongoing aggression in other affairs. These include the ongoing war in Yemen, the repression of rebellious populations in Bahrain, and the imprisonment and execution of political dissenters at home. So, why is Khashoggi special?
Khashoggi is often represented as a ‘dissident journalist’. The disappearance of this single man has forced the hand of political leaders to an extent that the death of tens of thousands and threat of famine in Yemen has not. Khashoggi is more than a simple journalist, and his fate is more directly tied to that of the ruling class in multiple countries. In effect, he’s one of their own, he’s a ‘friend’. He’s internationally connected to a network of power, and this proximity to power makes his case have implications for the particular composition of the ruling class: their allegiances, their internal conflicts, and their methods of rule.
Who is Jamal Khashoggi?
Khashoggi disappeared on 2 October 2018. He was last publicly seen entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in order to receive documents permitting his marriage. He’s now vanished. Turkish government officials accuse the Saudis of killing and dismembering the man within the consulate.
Khashoggi was born into privilege. He’s from a wealthy and politically connected family. Many of his associates and patrons are likewise privileged. His uncle is the now deceased billionaire arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi. Adnan‘s father was personal physician to the Saudi royal family. Adnan was involved in an arms deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran in which US president Ronald Reagan’s administration secretly participated in exchange for the release of US hostages held by Iran, and the money from the sale used to fund rebel fighters in Nicaragua. The details of this Iran-Contra affair were revealed in 1986. Adnan Khashoggi is also the uncle of Dodi Al-Fayed, who was lover to the United Kingdom’s princess Diana. Al-Fayed and Diana both died after a 1997 car crash in Paris.
Jamal Khashoggi’ career is a prestigious one. He was media advisor to prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UK and USA. Prior to that, the prince led the kingdom’s intelligence organisation for 24 years. Turki Al-Faisal’s father was king, assassinated by another member of the royal family in 1975.
Khashoggi was also close to prince Alwaleed Bin Talal; was appointed to lead and help establish a news channel and served as editor in chief of two major Saudi newspapers. His most recent work appeared in regular columns for the Washington Post. He was sometimes fired from leading posts, indicative of power struggles and policy differences within a broadly common body of ruling members whose internal competition for the top spots has resulted in intrigue and course changes.
Saudi Arabia has recently seen the mass detention of its country’s prominent personalities, US global hegemony is contested by situational change and rising opposition, the European Union is riven with internal competition, capitalism’s geographic core is threatening to shift some of its leading functions away from its current bases in US and allied centres, inequality between the poor and rich is rapidly widening the world over, those regions commonly fought over for international influence – such as Central and West Asia, North Africa – experience long and deep instability and warfare. This is the context within which the latest schemes and plans for the nature and distribution of power is taking place. As changes are clearly afoot, differences in opinion and approach between existing members of the ruling class have driven them into pitched and immediate competition. The winners hope to influence the future outcome of national, regional and global affairs.
Saudi Arabia’s much talked about palace intrigues are unfolding at a time of international change. This change has led to heightened competition between the world’s powers as they seek to maintain or gain new ground over a shifting terrain of influence. These forces – geopolitical as well as propelled by the internal and spatial transition of the world’s economy – stir tensions that have resulted in significant rifts within the ruling class of various countries.
Saudi Arabia’s dynastic order of succession is fought over, China’s anti-corruption campaign expels many from office, Turkey’s leading figures cross swords and many are ousted, far right political tendencies step into the open while established political parties deepen their relations with the captains of business and finance in many Western countries, etc. Accusations of corruption, immorality and treachery are flung from one wing to another. Scandal is leveraged to threaten disempowerment or to at least temporarily constrain an opponent.
The pitch and frequency of this infighting is a breach of protocol under normal circumstances. A story told by Yanis Varoufakis serves as a good example. In 2015, Varoufakis met with former US treasury secretary Larry Summers to privately discuss the future of Greece and Varoufakis’ brief role as finance minister. Varoufakis recounts this encounter in his book Adults in the Room:
“There are two kinds of politicians,” [Summers] said: “insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritize their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes.”
This protocol is breached in Saudi Arabia as ‘insiders’ are arrested, kidnapped, and maybe even killed.
Saudi Arabia’s past and present
Saudi Arabia’s very foundation is based on and anchored to the international order that was established in the early 20th century by British and US political, economic and military forces. The marks of this are evident even in the name of the country’s national energy corporation, Aramco (short form of the previous Arabian American Oil Company). A good review of the economic forces at play is provided by Richard Seymour in his article, The murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Currently, the line of succession for king is fought over. This has resulted in the promotion of Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MbS), to crown prince. He’s expected to take the throne, following his father as king. He’s already commonly viewed as the country’s effective leader and is credited with many of the most important decisions, such as attempts at political and economic reforms.
The path to kingship has not been without strife. It’s included the mass detention of some of the kingdom’s most elevated individuals, representing power blocs that may have then and may still oppose the would-be king’s ascent. Famously, these hundreds of people were initially detained in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on charges of corruption.
Khashoggi voiced his ‘dissent’ on this issue. In 2017, he said that “MbS used the corruption stick which can reach any one of them.” He added that “for the first time we Saudis see princes being tried for their corruption”, and, “I believe MbS is a nationalist who loves his country and wants it to be the strongest but his problem is that he wants to rule alone”. He also voiced disagreement with particularities of the war in Yemen. This is a mild sort of dissent, one directed against the very specific policies and perhaps rule of Mohammed bin Salman. It doesn’t undermine the royal family as such, or the imposition of dynastic rule. Khashoggi’s relations were closely tied to a branch of the royal family whose power has been considerably reduced by the rise of bin Salman.
The order of succession
The order of succession to the title of king has been upset. Up to now, all but the first king were brothers. Mohammed bin Salman, if he becomes king, will break with previously established norms of inheritance.
It’s not like there’s much choice to keep things exactly as they were. Even though very numerous, the brothers are old and it’s inevitable that the next generation is handed the crown. There have been six brother-kings up to now: Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, Abdullah, and the current Salman (father of MbS).
By passing the crown from brother to brother, it was assured that no single branch of the dynastic family would be guaranteed the ultimate authority of kingship. Other offices were divided among the greater family, a spread that helped to consolidate the kingdom despite its many claimants. Saudi Arabia’s is a flexible system of this kind, where the next in line to the throne is decided upon by negotiated political contest. This preference of succession to brother over sons is often called agnatic seniority.
The necessary passage of authority to the next generation requires an adjustment to the practice of succession. Brothers would need to be replaced by descendants. Agnatic seniority could still be kept as long as an heir was selected among nephews, cousins, sons, etc. of the entire house.
Periods of such transition are both dangerous and opportune. King Salman has declared his intention to enthrone his own son. Though early and yet to fully play out, this could result in a new order of succession: one in which the crown is passed down from father to son. So, the question of who will be Saudi Arabia’s future ruler isn’t only about which individual will take charge, but about what system of succession is applied to determine this. Any system will have its own logic and divisions of power. So, if Mohammed bin Salman ascends to the throne, we may see a new apparatus come to light.
Speculating on events
Turkey’s government has made a great deal of noise regarding the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. They’re conducting a closed-door investigation and claim to have a recording of Jamal’s murder. In 2017 Turkey’s government was in a stand-off with that of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over the latter two’s severance of diplomatic ties with Qatar. They’ve also partially blockaded Qatar. These decisions are associated with Mohammed bin Salman. Officials from Turkey have also accused leaders from the two Gulf states of attempting a coup which they say was averted thanks to the rapid deployment of Turkish military units to Qatar. This, among other incidences, is a sure example of serious differences between the two governing groups.
While all eyes were on the Khashoggi case, Andrew Brunson was released from prison and returned to the US. Brunson is a pastor and US citizen that the Turkish government has accused of participating in the 2016 attempted coup against it. His release may be used as a bargaining chip with the US. However, I think it more likely that the release was timed such for Turkey to maintain the appearance of strength while releasing a person whose detainment was no longer beneficial and whose imprisonment could be used in the US to support aggressive policies against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
Meanwhile, a possible change to Saudi Arabia’s order of dynastic succession and the reduced influence of some factions is probably not liked by all circles within the US ruling class. They have long and lasting relations with existing branches of the house of Saud. Continuity has it benefits: such as predictability and reliable means to influence. While change brings new opportunity for some and unacceptable volatility for others. The difference of US ruling class opinion on the subject reflects the difference in underlying relations between the networks of power within both countries.
What’s not questioned is the strategic alliance between the two states. The argument is over the particularities of the alliance, its structural composition, and the tactics used to achieve shared goals. US senator Lindsey Graham put it this way: “I was on the (Senate) floor every time defending Saudi Arabia because they’re a good ally”. He added that “[t]here is a difference between a country and an individual”.
“The MBS figure is to me toxic. He can never be a world leader on the world stage.” Graham capped things off with, “This guy has got to go”.
After a telephone conversation with king Salman on the topic of Khashoggi’s possible murder, US president Donal Trump relativised the event and hinted at a way out of the bind.
He said that, “the king firmly denies any knowledge of it. He didn’t really know, maybe, I don’t want to get into his mind but it sounded to me like maybe it could have been rogue killers, who knows? We’re going to try get to the bottom of it very soon but his was a flat denial.”
If there is a struggle for power taking place in Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi is a likely victim of it. Meanwhile Turkey’s government and elements within the US ruling class may use the incident to press for one side or the other. Turkey may try to use the event in order to bargain with MbS for concessions. In exchange, Turkey could present findings that personally vindicate him. Erdogan, has yet to publicly weigh in one way or another. Those in the US who are supportive of MbS may do something similar. Either or both may well give MbS an out by concluding that ‘rogue killers’ are indeed to blame, and that there’s no official responsibility on the part of the Saudi government. The Saudis, in response can punish individuals fingered as culprits and rogues, potentially even getting rid of some rivals as a bonus.
Alternatively, an assessment may be in the making about the viability of Salman’s plans for rule and succession. The Turkish government and elements within the US may prefer a change of course and a return to certain agnatic seniority of succession in order to privilege their own plans for the future of international affairs.