Saudi Arabia's myopia is the cause of the Khashoggi blunder

Saudi Arabia's myopia is the cause of the Khashoggi blunder
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We must give credit where credit is due: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his minions may have authored the incident that captures the full flavor of Talleyrand’s observation “It is worse than a crime, it is a blunder.”

Mohammed bin Salman’s myopia about Turkey and the United States contributed to his, and the kingdom’s, predicament in the wake of the death of the activist-journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In his imaginings of how it would all go down, he never considered the most important element of any covert operation (or crime) – the getting-away-with-it part.


Did Mohammed bin Salman consider Turkey a lesser Muslim country than Saudi Arabia, “the Land of the Two Holy Mosques," and thus a killing field to use at will? Or did he forget that Turkey is a country with modern institutions, membership in NATO, and some skills – including, to his regret, forensic science.

Turkey’s reaction to Khashoggi’s disappearance is likely motivated not just by concern that a capital crime was committed on its territory, but fury that the Saudis though they could fool them.

The Saudis apparently thought a hit squad bigger than the national soccer team, traveling under their true names, and arriving on private jets would go undiscovered. The fact that the Israelis, who play in the Premier League of espionage, got caught in the Dubai killing of Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, should have given the Saudis pause. And once Khashoggi emigrated to the United States, he may have been out of Riyadh’s reach.

The Americans, who have reluctantly gone along with the kingdom’s ruinous assault on Yemen, and needless spat with Qatar, have signaled to Riyadh it must take decisive action to make a public accounting of Khashoggi’s disappearance.  Remarks by President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE and Senator Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRepublicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden Let's give thanks to Republican defenders of democracy Clyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts MORE, who called Mohammed bin Salman a “wrecking ball,” have been clear that, despite the long-term relationship, deep business and security ties, and unprecedented spending on lobbyists, ‘nobody-knows-nuthin’ will be an unacceptable finding.

Even if governments pretend to believe the Saudi public prosecutor’s announcement that Khashoggi died in a “fist fight,” Mohammed bin Salman may still be toxic to investors; a deal with him will be hard to explain at the annual stockholder’s meeting. If that’s the case, Saudi Vision 2030, the plan to diversify the economy away from oil and to improve public services, won’t happen, as the only prospective investors who aren’t worried about reputational risk are Russian and Chinese state-controlled entities.

Businessmen are fleeing the Saudi investment conference, “Davos in the Desert,” scheduled for late October, but one CEO hasn’t been heard from: Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and owner of Khashoggi’s employer, the Washington Post. Bezos may be holding fire because of his deal to set up data centers in Saudi Arabia, a decision that can’t be going down well in the WaPo newsroom.

King Salman will protect his son, but the al-Saud will protect their franchise. If Mohammed bin Salman keeps his job, his power will be diminished and he may lose the Ministry of Defense portfolio and any influence over the military, the National Guard, and the security services. If he goes, the replacement may be one of King Salman’s older sons, all regarded as very capable, or a caretaker such as Khalid Al Faisal, a son of the late King Faisal who is respected in the family and well-known to the Saudi people.  

But the cleanup effort is already off to a bad start: After the public prosecutor’s announcement that Khashoggi died in a “fist fight,” King Salman directed Mohammed bin Salman to head the restructuring of the country’s intelligence agency, the General Intelligence Presidency. Fox, meet henhouse.

The Saudi rulers will have to contend with the raised expectations of the under-30 Saudis, almost 60 percent of the population, so there won’t be a rollback of social changes, such as allowing women to drive, curtailing the power of the religious police, and opening public entertainment venues like movie theatres. This is less a case of “the empire strikes back” and more of Dad grabbing the steering wheel.

Turkey hasn’t commented on the latest Saudi announcement. The Turks have the evidence and the Saudis have only a story, so Turkey may still be considering their demands of the Saudis.

Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council says we are seeing  “an effort by Erdogan to seize the opportunity improve his country's strategic position vis-à-vis Washington, and to do so at Saudi Arabia's expense.” Erdogan knows he can’t rupture the U.S.-Saudi relationship but he can teach Riyadh a lesson, diminish its influence in the region, and leverage the tragedy to draw closer to Washington to get its support for needed International Monetary Fund loans.

Trump’s tack with Turkey should be to use the release of pastor Andrew Brunson to reaffirm the relationship, and encourage Turkey to focus on its NATO allies and the Turkic countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Ankara must acknowledge that Washington will not prioritize Turkey’s anti-Saudi moves over America’s policy in the region: “Iran is Job 1”.

The final slate of Saudi players won’t be known for a while. The U.S. Congress can play bad cop to Trump’s good cop to force the al-Saud to build a credible and mature leadership team that can stay focused on Iran and do what’s necessary to avoid Lindsey Graham’s threat to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.”

Meanwhile, they’re laughing themselves silly in Tehran.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).