Foreign policy is a difficult thing for countries to manage, but in the vaulted halls of power and the corridors of embassies, few countries cause such a headache to world leaders as Saudi Arabia. In the eyes of the West, the whole of the Middle East is a danger zone in and of itself, but Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest players on the chessboard. It is as much a bastion of stability and key strategic partner as it is a repressive regime and potential belligerent in a growing crisis with Iran. It is a study of international cognitive dissonance: an anti-democratic ally of democratic nations.
Saudi Arabia is a powerful kingdom, deriving its wealth (and military might) from its huge reserves of oil in the region. It is one of the largest producers of oil, petroleum and natural gas, making it an energy superpower and therefore, a vital interest to the many nations to the West, hungry for more oil and gas. Saudi Arabia is the home of the two most sacred sites in Islam: Mecca (where the Prophet Muhammed was born) and Medina (where Muhammed fled to and began teaching the word of Islam). Millions of pilgrims flock to the country as eagerly as the world powers, seeking succor for their needs.
The trouble comes when you look beneath the surface and consider some of the less impressive aspects of Saudi Arabia. As an autocratic kingdom following an extreme version of Islam (better known as Wahhabism), Saudi Arabia is considered to have a hand in much of the turmoil of the Middle East itself. With huge financing from the oil and gas trade, Wahhabism is able to spread its repressive doctrine across the region.
Consider for a moment how Osman Bin Laden and the majority of the 9/11 hackers were Saudi nationals. Consider how Bin Laden and many other extremists were sponsored by Saudi Arabia during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Consider how similar al-Quaeda and ISIS are, not just to each other but to Saudi Arabia in terms of upholding religious doctrine.
In truth, Wahhabism has been declining as a force, but much of the more distasteful, horrific and dictatorial aspects of the nation have always been a sore point with Western democracies. The recent conflict in Yemen and the rising tensions with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s biggest rival for power have made this dissonance even worse. Yet, Saudi Arabia is welcomed as an ally to Western democracies despite its atrocities.
The reforms of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (known as MBS) have been a watershed moment after allowing women to drive cars for the first time, threatening and eroding the power of religious conservatives and hardline supporters of Wahhabism. Some even hope for greater things to come when MBS takes the throne and Saudi Arabia may undergo its own ‘White Revolution’.
The recent disappearance and alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi have changed everything – or has the potential to do so.
Jamal Khashoggi was a journalist who, besides being a US permanent resident, was a frequent and vocal critic of the Saudi government, including Crown Prince MBS. On October 2nd, he entered the Saudi consulate in Turkey for a document he needed to get married while his fiancee waited outside. When the consulate closed for the day and he did not return, she reported him missing.
Since then, this strange case has turned into a political and international crisis which has once again raised questions over the authoritarian stance of the Saudi government along with the wider question of freedom of the press and the threats that journalists face in a world that seemed to have been increasingly hostile to mainstream news.
The Saudi government says Jamal Khashoggi left through a back entrance (rather than meet up with his fiancee) while the Turkish government, who have a complex and often adversarial relationship with Saudi Arabia claim he was murdered in the consulate. Was it an assassination sanctioned by the state, taking a cue from Putin’s Russia? Is Jamal Khashoggi being held hostage? Was he forced to leave another way and has been forced into hiding?
Whatever the truth is, Jamal Khashoggi’s sudden disappearance has made things much harder for MBS. If the goal was to silence a voice of dissent quietly, it has failed spectacularly.
Part of the reason is that the Crown Prince is due to host a major international conference, the Future Investment Initiative conference in Saudi Arabia, a sort of ‘Davos in the desert’ where some of the biggest companies in the world can come and marvel at a re-imagined Saudi Arabia, led by its modernizing Crown Prince. Now, the event has been thrown into chaos with several major names pulling out. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Sir Richard Branson, major media organizations such as the New York Times and The Economist, have all pulled out of the event.
This is a major blow for the Crown Prince who had hoped to show a different side of his soon-to-be future kingdom. His big project, Vision 2030, is his flagship project which aims to help diversify Saudi Arabia’s interests and global reach while cleaning up its global image. Allowing women to drive was thought to be the first major step towards this project’s ultimate goal.
That project is now in jeopardy with the ‘Davos in the desert’ facing greater uncertainty and international ties are now strained to breaking point. This isn’t the first time that MBS has faced negative press over his brutal methods. This the same man who ordered all diplomatic personnel to leave Canada after a spat with Justin Trudeau over the arrest of a woman activist. The same man who imprisoned hundreds of wealthy businessmen, including members of his own family on corruption charges.
Not all is lost, however. Many US corporations and Western businesses have chosen to remain silent on the issue, perhaps hoping that the issue blows over and are still slated to appear at the event. There has also been muted criticism from the White House, which is not surprising for those who are familiar with both American foreign policy and Trump’s personal business dealings in the kingdom. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is still going to the conference which has drawn criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.
Although Trump has promised ‘bad things’, his less-than-forceful response is very telling, especially since he had been more critical of Taylor Swift supporting Democrats this past week. Such a response gives hope to Saudi Arabia that their long-standing friendship with America might save them from total isolation. America needs Saudi Arabia in the same way it needs Israel to survive, just as other Western continue to do.
In addition, Saudi Arabia is still holding many cards. Until the reserves and deposits run out, nothing changes their standing as the largest supplier of oil and natural gas. They still hold the holiest sites in the world, cementing their role in modern Islam, and they are still a vital bulwark against Iran’s aggressive tendencies. 9/11, the war in Yemen and the oppressive policies of the kingdom have failed to move Western leaders to punish Saudi Arabia in any meaningful way.
This whole incident feels different. This is the disappearance and alleged death of an anti-Saudi critic. A former insider with intimate details of the connections between Osama Bin Laden and the Saudi royal family. A man who holds US citizenship. Another journalist who may have fallen foul with powerful forces he wanted to be held to account.
Despite the muted response from Trump, it is clear that Saudi Arabia is facing the most intense diplomatic pressure in years.
All of this matters because politics is a dangerous and deadly game in Saudi Arabia which, like most dictatorships, absolute power is concentrated in the hands of a few. MBS rose to prominence through sidelining potential rivals, presenting a bold new plan and pushing for moderate reforms that disrupted the old ways and angered hardline conservatives. The powers that once held much of the power in Saudi Arabia have been badly undermined.
Now, those same powers are eyeing up the opportunity. Now, MBS is vulnerable with his bold ideas overshadowed by his heavy-handed methods, his underlying brutality and a diplomatic crisis threatening the kingdom. By breaking the power of the Royal Court – a consultative body made up of senior royals – MBS has left himself isolated politically. It would be so easy for members of the Court or even other ambitious rivals to tell the King that his heir is out of control.
This new diplomatic crisis has truly shaken the world and Saudi Arabia’s image has been trashed. The survival of MBS and his grand designs all depend on how he chooses to respond to the crisis and how the issue will be resolved. There will also be speculation on what actions Donald Trump will take, given his close personal relationship with the Crown Prince and his numerous business interests in the area. Lawmakers, already frustrated over Yemen, will be pushing for a decisive response. If America starts becoming a fairweather friend to Saudi Arabia, then all bets are off for MBS.
Saudi Arabia will probably still be a valuable ally to the West, the strange paradox of supporting the regime in exchange for oil supplies continuing unabated. There’s too much to lose by cutting Saudi Arabia off completely. But this new diplomatic isolation is a terrible look for a country hoping to modernize itself and address its international image.
We still don’t know what happened to Jamal Khashoggi and without solid evidence, we may never know. He alone may have known the true price of crossing the Crown Prince and the Saudi Royal Family. Yet his mysterious fate has already cast a long shadow over the kingdom and has placed doubt in the Crown Prince’s future.
For the first time in years, the winds are shifting against Saudi Arabia. Time will tell how far that shift goes.