On October 2, Saudi national and U.S. green-card holder Jamal Khashoggi reportedly walked into the Saudi consulate to resolve issues related to his marital status. Through anonymous leaks to the press, Turkish sources claim he did not leave the diplomatic facility alive. More anonymous sources claim he was tortured and murdered, allegations repeated in the U.S. press without evidence.
It is possible that the circumstances around Khashoggi’s disappearance will soon come to light. However, it’s equally likely that the passage of time will only further obscure events. To cast some light on the issue, I thought it was worthwhile asking what seem to me the central questions.
1. Is There Evidence Khashoggi Was Murdered?
Turkish sources say there is. The U.S. press has reported that unnamed Turkish officials have told them—or unnamed second-hand Turkish sources had told them—they have evidence, audio and video, that a team of Saudi officials detained, tortured, and killed Khashoggi.
However, no reporters, neither Western nor Turkish, have seen that evidence. If it exists, the Turks have not made it public. In one of the few leaks from the U.S. government, an intelligence official told CNN there is no hard evidence as to whether Khashoggi is dead or alive.
2. Why Has Turkey Asked Saudi Arabia to Join Its Khashoggi Investigative Team?
According to press reports, the government in Ankara has asked Riyadh to help investigate what happened to Khashoggi. The Turkish foreign minister recently complained that the “[Saudis] aren’t cooperating in full extent to uncover the circumstances of Khashoggi’s disappearance. We would like to see a genuine cooperation from them.”
This makes no sense. If Saudi Arabia is suspected of abducting or killing Khashoggi, its involvement in the investigation would compromise the probe, even giving a potential suspect opportunity to tamper with evidence. Further, if there is audio and video evidence that a Saudi team killed Khashoggi, as Turkish and U.S. media report, there is no need for an investigation—the case has already been solved.
The Turks’ two irreconcilable diplomatic tracks—official channels offering Saudi a role in the investigation while unnamed sources accuse it of murder—suggest that Ankara is negotiating with Riyadh. It’s unclear what the terms are.
3. Are Internal Turkish Issues a Factor in the Khashoggi Affair?
Because the Turkish figures and officials leaking to the press are anonymous, it’s not clear if, or to what extent, they represent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Could the sources be hostile to Erdogan?
Two years ago, his opponents attempted to overthrow him, leaving hundreds of Turks dead. Erdogan responded by rounding up followers of the former ally he blames for the coup, Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who has lived in Pennsylvania for nearly two decades. Gulen, like Khashoggi, has a green card, reportedly facilitated by CIA officials.
Presumably, Erdogan has mostly rid his police force of the Gulenists who once dominated it. However, some sources identifying as police are challenging pieces of evidence that the Ankara government is using to illustrate Saudi guilt.
The discipline shown in the messaging campaign—accuse Riyadh through leaks and reveal nothing in public—suggests Erdogan is managing the Khashoggi file directly. However, his overall management of the crisis may make him vulnerable, again, to domestic rivals.
4. What Does the Khashoggi Affair Have to Do with the Gulf Cooperation Council Cold War?
Since spring 2017, the Gulf Cooperation Council has been split, with senior partner Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) pitted against another U.S. ally, Qatar. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi accused Doha of supporting terrorism and getting too close to Iran, and imposed an embargo on their junior partner.
Turkey sided with Qatar, where it has a military base. Erdogan has sought to heal relations with Riyadh but still has problems with the UAE as well as Abu Dhabi’s sprawling client, Egypt.
Qatari media outlets are leading the information campaign, publishing the most garish rumors, like the prospect that Khashoggi was cut into pieces. It’s not known what role Doha may be playing behind the scenes, but it’s clear that Erdogan sees the Khashoggi affair as an opportunity to advance Turkish interests against Qatar’s rivals.
Thus the Khashoggi affair is another battleground in the GCC Cold War.
5. Is the Release of Pastor Brunson Related to the Khashoggi Affair?
Turkish press sources say no. Trump said there was no deal to get back Andrew Brunson. However, the timing of the pastor’s release seems to say otherwise.
There were rumors in July of a deal to free Brunson. The United States helped win the release of a Turkish terror suspect held by Israel, but instead of releasing Brunson, Ankara put him under house arrest. The Trump administration sanctioned Turkish officials, and warned that an already damaged Turkish economy was vulnerable to more sanctions.
After July’s events, Brunson’s lawyer filed a motion, and it was expected the pastor would be released from house arrest, although his passport would not yet be returned. Then Friday, Turkey sentenced and released him with time served.
The fact that Ankara is bargaining with Riyadh suggests that the Turks were looking to improve their position by giving the Trump administration something it wanted. Thus the release of Brunson is almost certainly related to the Khashoggi affair.
6. Did U.S. Intelligence Know the Saudis Were Planning an Operation Targeting Khashoggi?
According to press reports, U.S. intercepts captured Saudi communications about an operation to detain Khashoggi. A CNN story indicates that the United States likely found the information in reviewing its intercepts after Khashoggi went missing. Was U.S. intelligence asleep at the wheel while an ally was planning an operation conducted on the soil of a NATO member that was likely to have regional, and even international consequences?
Should Riyadh have notified its U.S. ally that it was planning an operation against a U.S. person? Saudi intelligence officials have historically enjoyed a close relationship with their U.S. counterparts, especially since 9/11, which raises an important question: Did the Saudis in fact tell the United States they were planning an operation targeting Khashoggi? Did anyone else know the Saudis were going after him?
7. How Did a Man with Extensive Ties to Intelligence Services as Well as Extremist Groups Get a Green Card?
Khashoggi writes a column for the Washington Post and worked at a number of Saudi media organizations, print and broadcast. Broadly speaking, he is a journalist, as the U.S. press is describing him—with the caveat that most Arab journalists primarily serve the political masters who pay and protect them, and often represent the interests of intelligence services.
Khashoggi was an adviser to former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal when he was ambassador to London, then Washington. Khashoggi reportedly joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and continues to advocate for political Islam. He called the late Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden a friend and mourned his death. It appears that Khasshogi may have been something like Riyadh’s back channel to al-Qaeda, at least prior to 9/11.
So how did a former Saudi official with ties to intelligence services, connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, and a long history with a terrorist responsible for nearly 3,000 deaths on U.S. soil obtain permanent resident status?
Khashoggi must have important American patrons, because even though he reportedly moved to the United States in 2017, he already had a green card. According to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius: “Friends helped Khashoggi obtain a visa that allowed him to stay in the United States as a permanent resident.” So who vouched for him and why?
It might be useful to put these questions to former CIA director John Brennan. He was station chief in Riyadh from 1996-1999, when Khashoggi’s patron Turki al-Faisal was head of Saudi’s general intelligence directorate.
8. How Much of U.S. Press Coverage and Expert Opinion Is Shaped by the Pro-Iran ‘Echo Chamber’?
To market the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, the Obama administration built an echo chamber out of government officials, policy experts, and a supine press corps. But Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative was not only or even primarily an arms control deal. Rather, the JCPOA was purposed to realign U.S. interests in the Middle East, with Iran as the favored partner and traditional American allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, downgraded.
Obama-era officials rightly saw the Trump administration as a threat to undo Obama’s policies. Trump not only got out of the Iran deal but also underscored the centrality of America’s traditional alliances. He made his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia and moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Soon after Khashoggi fell out of public view, former Obama aides and other echo chamber associates went into action. To punish Saudi, they named specific policies. In particular, they argued that the administration should withdraw support for Riyadh’s war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
It’s hardly coincidental that Khashoggi himself had made similar points in a September Washington Post column: “Saudi Arabia’s crown prince must restore dignity to his country — by ending Yemen’s cruel war.” In the article, Khashoggi questioned the crown prince’s legitimacy as ruler of Saudi Arabia and custodian of Islam’s two holiest shrines.
The inability, Khashoggi wrote, “of Saudi authorities in preventing Houthi missiles from being fired in the first place serves as an embarrassing reminder that the kingdom’s leadership is unable to restrain their Iranian-backed opponent.” Khashoggi’s criticism of other policies implemented by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS)—like trying to rein in Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri—also synchronized with echo chamber talking points.
It should come as no surprise that the Obama echo chamber used the Khashoggi affair as an opportunity to sound its anti-Saudi talking points. As a Saudi voice critical of MBS, Khashoggi’s work at the Post was integrated into the echo chamber’s anti-Saudi and pro-Iran messaging campaign. How much is U.S. reporting and opinion regarding the Khashoggi affair shaped by the pro-Iran echo chamber? Nearly all of it.
9. Why Are Some DC Public Relations Firms Now Worried about Representing the Saudis?
Washington DC lobbyists and public relations firms, who represent some of the world’s worst, now appear to believe that the Saudis are beyond the pale. Is it because some of their other clients—like African despots, Central Asian oligarchs, and Latin American drug lords—don’t like the odor? No, it’s again a function of the GCC Cold War—and domestic American politics.
Both sides, Saudi Arabia/UAE and Qatar, have spent lavishly in their efforts to win the exclusive love of the American government. Many inside the Beltway have profited handsomely from the GCC conflict. Others, however, paid a price for putting themselves in the middle of warring tribes. For instance, the UAE-allied former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee chairman Elliott Broidy was targeted by the Qataris, who hacked his wife’s emails and leaked them to the New York Times.
Having acquired over the last several years the customs and manners of Arab media outlets, it’s only fitting the U..S press has taken sides against certain Arab regimes, just as it has taken sides against the current White House. Since Trump looks with favor on Saudi and the UAE, the media considers them enemies, too.
That’s why Congress’s hometown paper, the Washington Post, is warning the Saudis’ friends, allies, and employees to abandon Riyadh lest they forfeit their respectability. In other words, as long as publicists and lobbyists work for the Saudis, they can hardly expect the Post to give their other clients a fair hearing. It’s blackmail.
10. Why Are Policy Analysts and Journalists Advising Trump to Go Hard on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman?
The dynamic public relations blitz waged on behalf of the 30-something heir to the throne appears to have backfired. It raised expectations way too high.
After winning praise from columnists like Thomas Friedman and Washington policy experts impressed by his favorable views toward political reform, Israel, women’s empowerment, and privatizing the economy, MBS stock has tumbled precipitously the last two weeks. Many of his former fans are barking the loudest because after they gave him the seal of approval, MBS embarrassed them in front of their peers.
Prominent GOP policy experts and neoconservative journalists were lured into the anti-MBS campaign led by former Obama hands and “resistance” media. Now, they, too, demand that the Trump administration should punish the crown prince.
They propose, however, no back-up plan should the shaming campaign by Saudi’s American patron weaken MBS’ position, or even remove him from the line of succession. After all, plenty of members of his family have it out for him after he locked down and penalized hundreds of princes last year as part of an anti-corruption campaign.
Most of the foreign policy establishment’s MBS advocates misunderstood his appeal from the start. They liked him because he appeared to be a liberal, and he encouraged that conviction, casting trifles in their path—movie theatres, music concerts, women behind the wheel, etc.
No, what’s most attractive about MBS is that he is young. His youth is important not because it signals a tech-savvy reformer with liberal impulses who will come to turn the kingdom into a democracy. He sees that Saudi Arabia is in a vulnerable position. Oil is not a long-term solution. Nor are there easy fixes found in the freedom agenda slogans chanted by those who now want to hobble him. His youth matters because, with luck, it will afford him time to figure out how to temper, maybe even solve, some of the country’s most daunting issues.
If he doesn’t, Saudi Arabia is in big trouble and so is everyone else. A meltdown in the Persian Gulf may affect global stability in ways that no one can fathom—including the experts, analysts, and pundits who now counsel punishing MBS, even though they, like virtually everyone else, have no idea what is at the bottom of the Khashoggi affair.