Watching the Saudi elites’ scramble to contain the fallout of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance has been something to behold.
Through official outlets and twitter accounts, members of the Saudi royal court have struggled to develop a cohesive counter-narrative to the one coming out of Istanbul, with some amazing results. One senior Saudi advisor threatened to assassinate a critic of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, "Khashoggi-style."
A Saudi pundit said if the U.S. reconsiders its friendship with Saudi, the desert Kingdom will be friends with Iran instead, prompting rebukes from his own camp. Saudi’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has gone full Stalinist propaganda machine in announcing Saudi citizens will remain “steadfast and glorious” through the controversy, whatever that means.
All the while, stocks of Saudi companies are tumbling as international investors begin to see pouring billions of dollars into a murderous regime may not be the best PR move right now.
It is clear there is no central coordination in the royal court for responding to the Khashoggi scandal: it’s simply chaos—continued jabs in the dark of startled Saudi elites hoping to strike a convincing and authoritative tone to little affect.
To start, let’s look at Saudi’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who decided the best way to handle the fallout from the Khashoggi scandal was to mimic Soviet-era propaganda posters:
Glorious indeed. “The outcome of these weak endeavors, like their predecessors, is demise.” Those in charge of the social media for Saudi’s diplomatic branch decided the best way to do damage control is to threaten anybody who doesn’t toe the Saudi governmental lines with “demise.” Also, let’s hone in on the little clause in the middle of the threat, “like their predecessors.” Here, Saudi is saying the pervious people who dared to criticized the current government met with 'demise'. Who exactly are they referring to here?
It’s not immediately clear, but the most recent and publicly known person to have likely met a demise in criticizing the government was the one and only Jamal Khashoggi.
Some folks also dug up an old tweet from one of Mohammed bin Salman’s top advisers, Saud al-Qahtani, who in 2017 threatened someone criticizing MbS’ disastrous war in Yemen, saying roughly “watch out, we reopened the assassination program.”
Al-Qahtani has been described as MbS’ Steve Bannon-like adviser and his information czar. If Saudi’s assassination program was indeed re-opened, it appears Khashoggi was one of its victims.
Saudi is scheduled to host a massive conference on Oct 23, called the “Future Investment Initiative,” aimed at attracting international investors to the kingdom. But as sponsors, corporations and government officials announce their withdrawal from the conference, Saudi reactions have gotten more heated and threatening.
One of the more amazing reactions was penned by an influential state-backed Saudi pundit, Turki Aldakhil, who argued in an op-ed that Saudi would align itself with Iran and Russia if the U.S. imposed any sanctions on Saudi.
By destabilizing Saudi’s economy and oil output, Aldakhil says, the U.S. will “throw the Middle East, the entire Muslim world, into the arms of Iran, which will become closer to Riyadh than Washington.” Iran and Saudi has been bitter geopolitical foes for decades, but apparently Saudi is willing to overlook their historical animosity and be friends if the U.S. sanctions his country.
This apparently went too far even for some top Saudi diplomats. Faisal bin Farhan, a senior diplomatic advisor to Saudi’s embassy in the U.S., tweeted “this article in no way reflects the thinking of the Saudi leadership.”
Even if Farhan doesn’t think this reflects the general thinking of Saudi’s leadership, it reflects at least someone’s perspective within the royal court, as the opinion piece was published in the Saudi-state owned Al Arabiya, which would not publish materials that contradicted Saudi state thinking.
The Saudi Embassy in the U.S. has generally tried to re-affirm Saudi’s alliance with the U.S. and the West more broadly.
In response to a Saudi Press Agency tweet saying the kingdom “confirms its total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it,” the Embassy’s twitter decided to play good cop to Riyadh’s bad cop. “To help clarify recently issued Saudi statement,” a response tweet read from the U.S. embassy, “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia extends it appreciation to all, including the US administration, for refraining from jumping to conclusions on the ongoing investigation.”
The Embassy’s tweet is framed as a clarification but is essentially a disavowal of the entire Saudi state-line, which is that the accusation are false and slanderous. The Embassy is asking everyone to simply refrain from jumping to conclusions and respect the ongoing investigation. Everyone else in the Saudi royal court however, has already concluded that the Khashoggi story is fake news.
Saudi’s aging King also waded into the scandal to emphasize a soft-handed approach and re-affirm Saudi’s partnership with Turkey.
The oddly calm statement makes all the other hard-liner posts and tweets all the more surreal: as their king signals that Turkey is an ally and that no one will undermine that special friendship, other members of the Saudi royal court are actively trying to undermine that special friendship. Much of the Saudi anger surrounding Khashoggi has been directed at Turkey for claiming Khashoggi was brutally tortured and murdered in Istanbul.
Watching the Saudi government’s chaotic reactions to the Khashoggi scandal is like seeing a car crash in slow motion.
The one man who is behind the wheel of the government, bin Salman, has been relatively silent since details of Khashoggi’s alleged murder surfaced by Turkish officials. In private, he reportedly spoke with Jared Kushner and denied everything.
Lingering in the background of the Khashoggi scandal and its massive international response is, why now and why him in particular? MbS orchestrated the Saudi’s intervention in Yemen, which has resulted in the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth according the U.N. His siege of Yemen and systematic starving of its people has been ongoing since March 2015, and has never received as much controversy or backlash as the likely murder of Khashoggi.
The Khashoggi affair may reveal that bin Salman is a brutal authoritarian towards his critics, but the war in Yemen has stood there all along as proof that bin Salman is capable of starving millions of civilians for years to serve vague geostrategic goals.
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