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The Power Struggles Behind Khashoggi’s Disappearance

Why would the Saudi crown prince want the journalist dead?

Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

In 1978, Lebanese Shia cleric Musa al-Sadr disappeared on a trip to Libya. Forty years later, his fate remains a mystery. He is widely believed to have been killed by his host, Muammar Qaddaffi.

The strange disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has become the Sadr case’s contemporary sequel. As with the charismatic Lebanese Imam, we may never definitively know what happened to Khashoggi after he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to obtain a divorce document. Rumor and conspiracy theory may swirl around his demise, like Sadr’s, for years.

Since the weekend, a stream of leaks flowing form Turkish officials has provided new, if still largely unproven details: that Khashoggi was killed by the Saudi state; and that a 15-man team, whose identities have been leaked to the Turkish press, was sent from Riyadh to render or kill him.

While these leaks have flowed Turkish President Erdogan has sat mute, saying he was waiting for the police investigation before making any official comment. The whole approach seems a calculated kind of political water torture aimed at extracting God-knows-what concessions from the Saudis—concessions that would benefit Erdogan, not Khashoggi. The Turkish president is no great friend of journalists, having locked up or exiled many himself.

Ankara has now announced a joint investigation with Riyadh. This is probably not a good sign. It may well signal a deal has been, or is being, brokered: The tap of information could soon be turned off, tightly.

If this happens, those anxious about Khashoggi’s fate will probably be left with little more than circumstantial evidence and Occam’s razor: Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate and never came out. He was a regular critic of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, whom he variously described as rash, repressive and “like Putin.” His last Washington Post column was deeply critical of the crown prince’s signature “initiative”—Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

No one else in the Saudi regime, save the crown prince’s father, the Saudi king, could have ordered Khashoggi’s death, given how serious an action it was, and given how little happens nowadays in Saudi without Mohammad bin Salman’s consent or direction. The king is probably not that reckless. The Saudis have denied any involvement, of course, but Occam was right: The simplest explanation usually proves to be the most correct.

Yet there are also two head-scratching aspects of this thesis. First: Why kill Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate? Surely anyone involved would have realized that if he disappeared in such circumstances fingers would point to bin Salman.

Perhaps the Saudi hit team was too lazy or too incompetent to go looking for Khashoggi. Or perhaps, as seems more likely, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia really did not think that anyone—at least not anyone he thought was important—would care about the disappearance or death of a Saudi journalist. After all, local journalists disappear in the Middle East all the time—and since the end of the Arab uprisings, even more than usual. Westerners rarely raise much of a fuss.

The Trump administration has an opportunity to prove the crown prince’s calculation wrong. So far it has shown little interest, the president signaling that arms exports to Saudi Arabia are more important than the life of a journalist whose name he struggles to pronounce. And even if the administration does something, it won’t change the way that President Trump has already encouraged many of the worst instincts of some of America’s allies in the Middle East, of whom the Saudis are but one example.

Yet the U.S.’s enabling behavior goes beyond the dictator-admiring president. In wake of the Khashoggi disappearance, former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced he was stepping off the board of one of Mohammad bin Salman’s pet projects, the NEOM mega city. Such moral qualms didn’t prevent him from joining the board in the first place, despite the fact the crown prince at the time had been locking up critics and dissidents for months.

It would be nice to believe that, out of the sheer horror of the Khashoggi case, some good will emerge: that it will change the way the world now deals with Mohammad bin Salman and other autocrats in the region. But I have watched the Middle East long enough to fear this won’t happen.

Since the end of the Arab uprisings Western countries have reembraced regional dictators. In Egypt, for example, the Sisi regime has jailed thousands of dissidents. That has not stopped the French government, which likes to pose purer than the Trump administration on such matters, from selling Egypt arms. Embracing autocrats is seen, as it always has been, as pragmatic and prudent, both for stability’s sake and for capitalism’s. These regimes, it is claimed, are resilient: Western governments have no choice but to deal with them. But how truly resilient are the Middle East’s autocrats, even young ones such as Muhammad bin Salman?

Which brings us to the second puzzling aspect of this case: Khashoggi was not a militant. He led no mass movement. According to some on Twitter who say they knew him well, Khashoggi did not even like to describe himself as a dissident. How exactly was he a threat to the Saudi state or to its main man?

Khashoggi was eloquent, insightful and well-connected. He had a prominent pulpit at The Washington Post from which to undermine the Saudi’s Prince’s efforts to promote himself internationally. He was a former government insider so he knew secrets. His writings, especially in Arabic, may have broadened divides within the Saudi royal family created by the crown prince’s ruthless power-consolidation campaign.

Even for allowing for all of this, it still seems incredible to think that Khashoggi represented a serious threat to the crown prince. But if he was really seen as such a threat, and if Muhammad bin Salman really ordered Khashoggi killed, how fragile must bin Salman’s rule be?

Or perhaps more to the point, how fragile must he be? One theory about the strange disappearance of Musa al Sadr is that he personally insulted Qaddafi when they met—that the Libyan dictator’s ego decided the imam’s fate.

Arresting a critic or forcibly returning them home sends a clear message to others, including any rivals in the royal family, that no dissent will be tolerated. Even exile will not keep you safe. This may have been the plan with Khashoggi, with something in the abduction going terribly wrong. But if the intent from the outset really was to kill Khashoggi then it would seem to go beyond just an effort to intimidate critics. It would seem to reflect such a thin-skinned vindictiveness and caprice as to send an entirely different—and from the crown prince’s perspective, not entirely helpful—message to the people around him: that no-one is safe while the crown prince’s power remains so untrammeled.