At around 1.30pm last Tuesday, 2 October, the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi arrived with his fiancée at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul for a pre-arranged appointment to obtain a document he needed to marry her. She waited for him outside, and at past midnight she was still waiting. Khashoggi has not been seen since.

The Turkish authorities (in a country with its own terrible record of repressing journalists) have begun a criminal investigation, while multiple officials have briefed the media that they believe him to have been murdered, which the Saudis categorically deny. The row is a major embarrassment for the UK and US, the leading backers of Saudi Arabia under its new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Khashoggi had been close to the ruling family until he went into self-imposed exile last year, believing that power in Riyadh was becoming too centralised around bin Salman, and that already strict limits on political speech were being further curtailed to an excessive degree. His criticisms were relatively mild and reformist in nature, but were enough to make him a bête noire to the monarchy.

This is all the more striking because Mohammed bin Salman has made strenuous efforts to promote himself to the West as an agent of moderate liberalisation and reform. The most iconic manifestation of this was last September’s announcement that women in the kingdom would finally be allowed to drive. But what should also be remembered is that, at around the same time, the women who fought for this right were being variously imprisoned, intimidated into silence and smeared as foreign agents.

This came as part of a wider crackdown as hundreds of clerics, activists and businessmen were arrested. Scores of members of the Saudi elite were rounded up and subjected to a supposed “anti-corruption” shakedown, conducted without any recognisable due process, in the notorious Ritz-Carlton episode.

In other words, irrespective of what has happened to Khashoggi, it was already abundantly clear that bin Salman’s purported liberalisation drive was little more than an exercise in PR. Very limited social reforms have taken place, and big economic reforms have been promised (often implausibly), but in political terms the tyranny has intensified, and all changes are aimed squarely at solidifying absolute monarchical rule.

If Khashoggi has been disappeared or killed, it would be a sign of both aggressive and bad judgement on the part of the Saudi regime, but again, further proof of such a lack of judgement is unnecessary. The evidence already included the failed attempt to isolate Qatar until it gave up its independent foreign policy, the reported attempt to orchestrate an effective coup in Lebanon by kidnapping the country’s prime minister while he was visiting Riyadh and ordering him to resign (which he rescinded after returning home), and above all the disastrous intervention in Yemen’s civil war, which was supposed to last weeks or months but has instead degenerated into a three and a half year quagmire. Paranoid about the sustainability of its economic model, and about its geopolitical standing in the Middle East, Riyadh under bin Salman has thus been lashing out wildly in all directions. And one explanation for these continued, ill-judged responses to the kingdom’s underlying strategic concerns is that the 33-year-old prince has yet to face any consequences for his actions.

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Whether members of a Saudi royal family which had previously run the kingdom on a more consensual basis amongst one another are prepared to tolerate being sidelined, even humiliated, by an inexperienced (and not obviously competent) upstart is a question that remains unanswered. So far, the other princes have not seriously attempted to fight back against or resist their marginalisation. And crucially, the powers who historically have acted as guarantors of the regime’s security and survival – the United Kingdom and the United States – have been warmly supportive of the Crown Prince. 

Even as Yemen has become the scene of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, where 8 million teeter on the brink of starvation under a blockade imposed by a Saudi-led coalition credibly accused of multiple war crimes, Washington and London have given rock solid backing to the Saudis. Those who believe the Khashoggi incident might undermine this support should reflect that when the Saudi-led coalition dropped a 500lb bomb on a school bus a few weeks ago, killing 40 children aged between 6 and 11, the US and UK managed nothing more than a few words of concern, while the arms supplies – including technical and logistical support crucial to sustaining the bombing campaign – continued undisturbed.

Khashoggi may be better connected in Western political and media circles than the 130 Yemeni children that Save the Children estimate are dying every day from hunger and disease, but it is already clear that the US and UK are prepared to go to considerable lengths to support the regime and suffer considerable embarrassment without making any serious attempt to restrain the Crown Prince. The response from both governments has been fairly weak and platitudinous so far.

The line that Saudi Arabia is reforming has always been a useful one. It plays into Western prejudices that an uncivilised society is doing its best, under the circumstances, to live up to our own high standards, while encouraging patience and limiting expectations. And it justifies continued support for the supposed reformers on that basis. But the reality is that Washington and London have for decades been shoring up authoritarians at the expense of real reformers, human rights defenders and democrats. Whatever has happened to Jamal Khashoggi, the blame for this episode extends far beyond Riyadh.

David Wearing is a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway. His book on UK foreign policy in the Gulf, ‘Anglo-Arabia’, is published by Polity Books.



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