JOHN TULLOH. Troubling times for Saudi Arabia

Oct 1, 2019

It is an unsettling time for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s effective leader, or MBS, as he is often referred to. The unchallenged attack on the kingdom’s oil industry made a mockery of the billions it spends to defend it. MBS faces growing international opprobrium about the harrowing war in Yemen which he has presided over since its inception more than four years ago. 

Now comes an unwelcome reminder of another stain on the reputation of Saudi Arabia. That is the first anniversary of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi tomorrow. This means for MBS more awkward questions about which Saudis have blood on their hands and what is being done about it.

It is unlikely that true justice will ever be achieved regarding the gruesome killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Initially, the CIA concluded that MBS himself ordered it. The Saudis denied that, blaming ‘rogue agents’. President Donald Trump declined to say whether he thought MBS was involved, no doubt not wanting to upset his prime arms customer. A UN investigation called it ‘an arbitrary and extrajudicial execution for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible’.

On the eve of the anniversary, MBS has spoken publicly for the first time. ‘It happened under my watch’, he says in a PBS documentary. ‘I get all the responsibility, because it happened under my watch’.

The US says one of MBS’s top aides, Saud al-Qahtani, was implicated and should stand trial. MBS demurred and put him under house arrest, although the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) says Qahtani remains an adviser behind the scenes. The UN concluded that the absence of charges against Qahtani and MBS himself means there will be no justice. Those questions will continue to gnaw away at international opinion of Saudi Arabia.

Another person of interest is Maj.-Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy chief of Saudi Intelligence. Unnamed Saudi officials quoted by the WSJ describe him as the ringleader who makes the decisions. But he can count himself safe as he has been involved in sensitive matters, including the shadowy role of building ties with Israel.

Eleven Saudis have been indicted and five have been put on trial which began in January. They include two members of the Royal Guard and a doctor who the Turkish authorities say dismembered Khashoggi’s body. But the evidence at the trial is anyone’s guess. It is behind closed doors. Diplomats representing Security Council members and Turkey can attend provided they don’t bring their own translators or talk about the evidence publicly. Trial days tend to be announced at short notice. The media is shut out. It may explain why Saudi officials have been quoted as saying the trials were contrived to deliver guilty verdicts for no other reason than to ease Western pressure. So much for Saudi claims that this and other trials ‘are meant to showcase Saudi Arabia’s ability to bring closure and accountability’.

Normally the punishment for murder in Saudi Arabia is beheading. Human rights organisations claim that more than 130 people have been executed in Saudi Arabia this year. Many were outspoken critics of MBS, according to The Death Penalty Project, an international legal charity helping anyone facing execution. ‘These egregious abuses have been exacerbated by the systematic torture of detainees and grossly unfair trials that have culminated in death sentences being imposed’, it says in a submission to the UN Human Rights Council.

American officials, quoted by the WSJ, said ​that even if the trials did result in convictions, they doubted if the punishment would be execution. It might be too much for the conscience of the defendants’ superiors despite Saudi claims that its judiciary is independent.

An international charm offensive introduced MBS to the international scene last year. Journalists who should know better gushed that he would introduce sweeping liberal reforms to life in Saudi Arabia. Certainly he softened a couple of policies concerning women, but was more concerned about rounding up and silencing his critics. He pressed on with the Yemen conflict despite the human casualties in the thousands, famine, cholera and images of emaciated, starving children. Now a motley group of members from both sides of US Congress are trying to ban US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, an attempt earlier this year having been vetoed by President Trump.

MBS has another problem. Unemployment is more than 12%. Complex new rules for foreign workers have forced thousands to depart, MBS hoping they would be replaced by Saudis. But the Saudis didn’t want their jobs. Overseas investment in the first half of this year remained at less than half the level in 2016. ‘If they have concerns about Saudi Arabia caused by the Khashoggi affair, the cosmetic convictions of a few lower-level actors are not going to alleviate their concerns’, according to Ellen Wald, the author of a history of Saudi business.

Fortunately for MBS, anniversaries last only a day and the world moves on. The Americans have rescued him from having to decide what to do about Iran – if indeed Iran is to blame for the oil attack which it denies. They are sending more troops to help with Saudi defence. A former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates once observed, the Saudis always want to ‘fight to the last American’. As it is, they rely partly on foreign proxies, such as Sudanese troops and reportedly Colombian mercenaries, for their war on the ground in Yemen and Arab coalition partners in the air.

But at least MBS has 16 months before yet another unwelcome date comes up. January 2021 is when the trial of the Guantanamo 9/11 detainees, mostly Saudis, is finally and at long last due to start. Just before then he will have a major opportunity to burnish Saudi Arabia’s image when he hosts the next G20 summit. However, those questions about who at the top were behind the killing of Jamal Khashoggi are likely to remain.

John Tulloh had 40-year career in foreign news.

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