I have been really incredibly busy in the past few months, and I’m going to continue to be busy in the coming months, so I’ve not really been keeping up with politics lately. This changed slightly with the Khashoggi affair, and I’ve had a lot of thoughts on what it all means and what I think people are getting wrong. I don’t pretend to be particularly knowledgeable, but I’ve noticed that a lot of people are viewing the events while missing a lot of context. This is kind of a lot of different thoughts I had jammed together semi-coherently. It’s really long, so I don’t fundamentally expect a lot of people to read it, but I just needed to get it off my chest and into the ether because my friends are tired of hearing me rant about it… and if they’re not, they will be.
I has been interesting to follow the news about Khashoggi, and in particular to notice the level of attention it has received. But in reading BoingBoing and everything in between in English-Language media, there is missing vital context. At first it’s only troublesome because there’s an innocent lack of a fuller context that it is hard to educate people on and cover Khashoggi’s death at the same time. After a while, however, this ignorance gives way to the lionization of Khashoggi, something I’m not sure he deserves. The purpose of the writing here is to go over some of the vital context that is simply not available if you’re only reading, listening, and watching in English.
It is important to make clear that killing someone for political purposes, who is not themselves presenting an immediate threat to innocent lives, is unacceptable–regardless of their politics. This fact is taken for granted for the remainder of this explanation, for brevity.
In order to understand the Khashoggi incident, it’s important to keep in mind the main state players: Turkey, the United States, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The personalities we’re primarily concerned with are MbS (in the GIF above), Khashoggi himself, Prince Turki Al-Faisal (bin Faisal), and Erdoğan. Please note the complete absence of an orange smear in the previous list. The immediate primary context we have includes the war in Yemen, the war in Libya, the war in Syria, the snubbing of Qatar, and the nascency of a Turkish sphere of influence in the region. All the usual secondary contexts apply: oil, Israel, American interests in the stability of the region (a phrase that always gives me a laugh, I don’t know about you), royalty in the Middle East, and Islamic fundamentalism.
First, who was Jamal Khashoggi? He was a Saudi of Turkish extraction, hence his slightly unusual (for Arabic) family name. The easiest most correct pronunciation accessible to Anglophones is Kha-shug-jee (where the middle syllable is pronounced like the first syllable of “sugar.”) A lot of English language publications have identified him as a dissident, especially in the early days after the news broke, but have settled somewhat on “journalist,” which is more accurate. As people who are capable of reading Khashoggi’s Arabic tweets and his articles in the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan (The Nation) will tell you, he always wrote in conciliatory tones with regards to the monarchy. He was never a revolutionary or an anti-royalist. But you knew that already from the fact that he consented to take up a job as the editor of a paper run by a Saudi prince. While he was forced to toe a line as a condition of writing in the non-free press environment, his English language articles never really attacked the monarchy as an institution, and you have to read his English articles with an Arab eye.
Reading Arabic newspapers and watching Arabic language news is a subtle art. You have to accept the fact that there is very little in the way of a truly free press in the Arab world. Al-Akhbar comes the closest to a leftist paper, for instance, but the space for what can be published is still narrow. Beyond that, you need to bear in mind that even Atheist leftist writers preserve some sectarian ideals based on the families they born into, something even I’ve had to come to terms with. Instead, you know who owns what paper, and what news agency, and what their interests are and learn to read between the lines. For instance, Khashoggi wrote an article in Al-Watan criticizing the manner in which government services were not accountable to anyone in the KSA. In it, he references MbS’s response to reporters asking about a famous rape case, but all the while only refers to MbS in the most obsequious tone. At first glance, from a direct translation, it seems like he’s not criticizing the Crown Prince at all, but to Arab readers, there’s a very subtle resting of blame on the Crown Prince. Khashoggi knew that there was a way to criticize MbS in the KSA, and he didn’t cross any lines. His ouster from the paper was due to publications by others, during his tenure as editor. He was a smart guy, and he also understood how the Overton window in the United States worked and played a very similar game.
For instance, when he criticized MbS’s atrocious attacks on Yemen, it was simultaneously couched very subtly with anti-Houthi sentiment. In fact, he bore an animus towards the Shia that it’s not clear ever disappeared. I couldn’t find the specific tweet, but apparently he criticized the late Shia Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr for speaking very ecumenically against the oppression of Shia minorities by Sunni majorities or vice versa. Instead we need to see Khashoggi’s writing for what it was: a defense of the old guard. He was ultimately enthralled to Prince Turki Al-Faisal. At this point I need to make a parenthetical remark that Prince Turki’s name means “handsome” and has nothing to do with Turkey or Khashoggi’s roots. But Khashoggi’s articles attacking MbS were mostly about the way in which MbS was behaving exceptionally poorly from a KSA royalist perspective. (I’m going to pause here to note the distinct lack of orange smearson this story so far.)
The KSA has always been ruled by oligarchical consensus. The extent to which the king is powerful is entirely determined by his ability to manage and create that consensus. Governors, ministers, and high level administrators are members of the royal family, and they attain their positions through subtle machinations, power struggles, and palace intrigue that I don’t think anyone really understands outside the House of Saud (though I freely admit I say this because I don’t understand it.) What MbS has been doing differently is consolidating power. This means that many of the “friends” Khashoggi refers to as being imprisoned by the Crown Prince are, in point of fact, patrons and royal allies who are having power taken away from them. This is what turned Khashoggi into a “dissident.” He had been critical of MbS in the past, and he was increasingly more reliant on non-Saudi pressures to ensure his continued survival under the new MbS paradigm.
Khashoggi was smart in a lot of ways. Turkey has been involved in proxy wars with the Saudis, with Erdoğan’s government funneling funds to Muslim Brotherhood affiliated groups in the region, along with Qatar. Khashoggi was no doubt on the receiving end of numerous phone calls and encounters with Saudi intelligence, both threatening and coaxing him to come back to the Kingdom, and fall in line. Khashoggi was likely told, based on his voluntary visit to the embassy, that they “just wanted to have a conversation.” Khashoggi, likely thought that a visit in Turkey, Erdoğan’s stronghold, would deter the KSA from harming him or taking any high profile action. Maybe he wanted the street cred of turning down a lucrative offer to shut the fuck up (the KSA makes these offers to dissidents from time to time). Maybe he had a tape recorder on him and wanted to expose the practice. It’s impossible to know for certain what was in his head.
This brings us to why it’s important to separate Khashoggi from true radicals. If you ever have the fortune to meet a Saudi dissident, they will tell you this is how the KSA operates abroad. The threats they get are characterized by the sinister phrase, “Our reach is long, and we can bring you.” It’s well known that the KSA surveills its nationals abroad, especially those pursuing degrees abroad, doubtless afraid that the leftist atmosphere (however deficient) in most American universities would lead to their induction into the feared “Jaysh Al-Grad School” (a joke Max Blumenthal came up with that has legs well outside the context he used it in). For those that stray, KSA operatives make threatening phone calls, find ways to cut off funding and employment, and they engage in targeted harassment. Khashoggi no doubt experienced that, but for very different reasons. While he fought to maintain the Saudi status quo and backed the wrong princes, Saudi anti-royalists and leftists have been on the receiving end of this for a long time, and many of them could only dream of seeing their radical politics presented in the WaPo. If Khashoggi hadn’t boosted his own profile in an American paper, and hadn’t arranged to meet his killers in a place where the Saudis would be deeply embarrassed, he’d just be another disappeared Saudi.
Western journalists seem bizarrely concerned that the Saudis will come for them next. The fear is bizarre, because anyone who has been paying attention (hint: not Western journos) knows that this behavior has a long history and is largely reserved for wayward Saudis. Other Arabs get away with criticizing the regime and MbS in ways that Khashoggi wouldn’t have thought to. American reporters are largely outside the orbit of the KSA’s routine repression of dissidents abroad. And orbit is a good word for this, considering that Western media largely occupies a different planet on the Middle East.
This brings us to the Arab media’s response to Khashoggi. KSA outlets have rather hilariously alleged everything from: “Khashoggi wanted to be kidnapped,” to his disappearance being “a nefarious Qatari psy-op.” But the rest of the Arab world is more skeptical. The Qatari-run news channel Al-Jazeerah has a show called Fawq Al-Sultah (Above Authority), a news and current affairs program that analyzes events in a rapid satirical style. (It’s not, however, a comedy program like The Daily Show). The pundit in the latest program pointed out the absurdity of the Saudi pretensions around at first denying and then “investigating” Khashoggi’s death. It also featured something I haven’t really seen the Western press comment on: King Salman has gotten involved publicly. The geriatric King essentially standing in front of (when you’re king, you don’t stand behind anyone) MbS in a cabinet meeting, promising to get to the bottom of this. The Arab press has also remarked on the Turkish president’s relatively respectful tone towards MbS and the monarchy. I don’t speak a lick of Turkish, but even over the Arabic simultaneous translation I heard Erdoğan refer to “The custodian of the two holy mosques” (apparently I understand Turkish better than I realize). This is a title of esteem, indicating that Erdoğan has MbS where he either wants him, or thinks he can get him: Significantly weakened. Arab analysts think he’s going to have to engage in some power-sharing to save face and help this blow over.
And blow over, it shall. My vague references to orange smears are to highlight the fact that despite the vision of Trump as an enabler of the KSA machine, the reality is that this machine has been rolling for quite some time. It rolls through Democratic presidencies and Republican presidencies. If an American president isn’t caught in a faux pas bow to KSA royalty then they’re holding hands (something it’s possible to criticize without being weirdly racist and homophobic). While it’s not odd to expect Trump to behave differently on the issue (which he has by directly implicating MbS), it is odd to me that anyone would want him to. Think about it, do you really want to see movement towards regime change in the KSA handled by Trump? Especially with US-backed regime change going so well over in them there parts? If anything, he’s the most inconsistent variable in this equation, and while I suspect it will blow over, there is a 1% chance that something different will happen… which would probably be terrible. The best case scenario is the withdrawal of arms deals, but that should be happening because of fucking Yemen, not Khashoggi.
So let’s spare a word for the Saudi dissidents that no one cares about or can name unless you’re shamed into Googling them. They’re the reason I don’t use the nebulous phrase, “the Saudis,” to refer to the regime here. Saudis are people, just like any other. They live their lives like anyone else does, and they are the victims of the political repression we rightly criticize. They don’t deserve to be derided as “backwards” and “stone-age.” These epithets get thrown around so casually, and they indiscriminately paint the Saudis as a people. If you ask even right-wing anti-Western Saudis what they think of Americans, all but the most virulent species will tell you (in Arabic–just two Arabs talking) that they don’t hate Americans, they just hate their government. A government which Americans ostensibly control. The same cannot be said for the relationship between the Saudis and their government. My criticism, as always, is focused on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: The execrable political entity that the West has a long history of supporting, and cannot pretend to have clean hands over. Whether it’s the repression of women, the slaughter of Yemenis, or the countless known and unknown crimes commissioned by MbS; it is still always Al-Mamlakah. The Kingdom. The Kingdom harrasses Saudi dissidents abroad. The Kingdom wants to execute dissidents. The Kingdom threw activists in jail for protesting for female drivers.
It’s the same Kingdom that Khashoggi was eager to serve, if not the one with the particular prince he would have as king.
It is the Kingdom that says to dissidents:
Our reach is long. And we can bring you.
And the Kingdom is right about that.