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King Salman

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Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder: Closing the Case

On Monday the public prosecutor of Saudi Arabia announced that justice has been done. Five people have been sentenced to death for the murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Saudi agents inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Unfortunately, he didn’t say who they were.

No problem. They will probably be executed by the end of the week (Saudi ‘justice’ doesn’t generally go in for lengthy appeals), and dead men don’t talk. Once the five men are shorter by a head and their families have been bribed and/or intimidated into silence, their names will be released – and that will be that. Case closed.

We do know the names of the condemned five already, however, because the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the case, Agnes Callamard, has published them. All of them are quite junior members of the hit team that murdered Khashoggi, or junior members of the mission control team back in Riyadh. The most senior is an intelligence official called Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb.

Mutreb worked for Saud al-Qahtani, who is special adviser to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. Needless to say al-Qahtani is not among the eleven who were charged with the killing, although he was almost certainly the operational controller in what was (after the fact) characterised by the Saudi regime as a ‘rogue operation’.

It was nothing of the sort. It is inconceivable that such an operation could have been carried out (by a 15-strong hit team flown in from Saudi Arabia on two private jets) without prior authorisation from MbS. In a tightly centralised regime, the Crown Prince makes all the final decisions that matter – and this one certainly mattered.

Murdering a famous Saudi journalist who writes a column for the Washington Post, and doing it on the soil of a more-or-less friendly country (Turkey), is a big deal, and MbS could not have been left out of the decision-making loop. As for the story, assiduously peddled by Saudi sources, that it was just a kidnap operation that went wrong, the Turks have the goods on that lie.

The Turkish intelligence services had bugged Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul (surprise!). Their recordings of the conversation among the Saudi killers before Khashoggi arrived – to pick up a document certifying that he was divorced, so that he could marry his Turkish fiancée (who was waiting outside) – make it clear that their intention was murder.

Minutes before the journalist entered the consulate, two of the Saudi officials discussed how to dispose of Khashoggi’s body. One says: “The body is heavy. First time I cut on the ground. If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished.” After some further discussion the other asks if “the sacrificial animal” has arrived yet.

So they killed him (probably with a lethal injection), cut his body up with implements that included a saw for the bones (there are the sounds of a saw on the Turkish recordings), and handed the bagged bits over to a local Turkish accomplice, who dumped them in a still undiscovered place. Then the hit team flew home again, after a job well done.

Having listened to the tapes and sent copies to all of Saudi Arabia’s major Western allies, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan said publicly that he could not believe that Saudi Arabia’s elderly and frail King Salman bin Abdulaziz had been personally involved. However, Erdoǧan pointedly did not say the same about the man’s reckless and ruthless son, Muhammad bin Salman, who actually runs the place.

Everybody knows that MbS ordered the hit. It fits his modus operandi, which features hasty and foolish decisions (like the military intervention in Yemen and the blockade of Qatar) that he then has plenty of time to regret at leisure as they go wrong. But he’s not going to pay a very big price for the Khashoggi murder.

The United States, Germany, Britain and France sat on the Turkish recordings for three weeks before Canada went public about them and forced the others to admit that they had received them too. Even then they dissimulated and prevaricated, desperately seeking some way to avoid accusing the crown prince of the crime.

And in the end none of them called him out on it. Five low-ranking Saudi officials, some of them no more than mere muscle, have taken the fall for the murder, while the directors of the operation will get a slap on the wrist (and, after some delay, a rich reward for their service and their silence).

As for the prime mover in the crime, he escapes any criticism at all from his foreign friends, who want to go on selling him arms and buying his oil. And nobody at home dares to say a word.
To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Having…murder”)

Saudi Game of Thrones

Now is the moment of maximum danger for Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS).

He has weathered the immediate storm over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi two months ago. He even went to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires a week ago and persuaded several other national leaders to stand beside him for photographs. But the real threat to his power (and maybe his life) is at home.

It’s not the Saudi public he must fear. He’s quite popular with young Saudis, who are a large majority of the population. He’s relatively young himself (33). He has loosened some of the tight social and religious controls (women can drive now, and you can even go to see a movie). And most of them don’t even believe that he is responsible for the killing.

MbS’s problem is his family, who know perfectly well that he ordered the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and understand what that crime means for the kingdom’s standing in the world. They also realise that his foreign policy has been an unmitigated disaster, from the futile war in Yemen to the blockade of Qatar, and that his economic policy hasn’t been much better.

Many prominent Saudis also have personal reasons to hate him. Some were pushed roughly aside in order to facilitate his rapid rise to supreme power. Others were kidnapped, jailed and even tortured in order to extort billions of dollars from them, on the often shaky pretext that their money was the fruit of corruption. If you held a secret ballot among the ten thousand most influential Saudis, MbS would be gone in a flash.

It doesn’t work like that, of course. This is still an absolute monarchy, and so long as MbS has the support of his elderly father, King Salman, he has absolute power – in theory. In practice, he must also have at least the grudging support of the royal family, which sees the Saudi state as a family business in which they all have a stake.

It is a remarkable family, if only for its sheer size: an estimated 15,000 members, many of whom are direct descendants of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud. When he died in 1953 he left 36 sons, and there are literally hundreds of grandsons.

All these men, their spouses and their children and grandchildren are supported (quite lavishly) by the family business, but there are only a few hundred people who really matter. They matter a great deal, however, and by now they would be close to unanimous in seeing Muhammad bin Salman as a wrecker who is endangering their own futures.

So how to get rid of him? In the past, the family’s rule has survived the abrupt removal of kings: one king was forced to abdicate in 1964, another was assassinated by his own nephew in 1975. The princes closed ranks, and the dynasty carried on with a new king. In theory, it should be even easier when you are only trying to remove the crown prince.

Why not just work through his father, King Salman? After all, the king has already appointed and then dismissed two other crown princes; maybe he could be persuaded to do it again. The problem with this approach is that MbS zealously controls access to the 82-year-old king, who is believed to be suffering from mild dementia (Alzheimer’s).

An alternative would be for the Allegiance Committee, a family-run institution created in 2006 which adjudicates on succession issues, to declare King Salman incompetent because of illness, dismiss the Crown Prince, and appoint someone else as his successor. In the absence of more formal rules, any prince descended from Abdul-Aziz would be eligible.

Plotters hoping to use this device would be risking their lives, of course, for MbS is a ruthless man who would strike first if he got wind of the plan. However, they may be emboldened by the fact that he has now arrested his own chief enforcers in an attempt to shift the blame for Khashoggi’s murder. This betrayal will certainly have shaken the loyalty of their colleagues who still serve the crown prince.

But there is one further consideration that is bound to give even the boldest plotters pause. If MbS concludes that he has decisively lost the support of the royal family, he still has a last card to play: war with Iran.

It’s what he wants in the long term anyway, but his preferred option has been to get the United States and Israel to do the actual fighting for him. If he had no other way of heading off a family-backed coup against him, however, he might take Saudi Arabia into such a war unilaterally, counting on the US and/or Israel to bail the country out. In the midst of a war, nobody at home would dare attack him.

So on balance, MbS is likely to stay in power, perhaps to the ultimate ruin of the country he rules.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“He has…killing”)