The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was a savage and brutal crime that shocked the world. His murder had ramifications that were far more serious than anyone, including the killers, could have envisioned or imagined. What’s more, the bungling of the investigation into the killing has undermined all of the achievements Saudi Arabia has made to empower a new moderate voice and undercut the extremist threat.
The failure to answer for the crimes in a timely and efficient manner is a great political blunder that could compromise efforts to suppress the rise of extremism and weaken voices of moderation. Already, extremists throughout the Arab World and the Middle East are using the unanswered questions about the murder to undermine Saudi Arabia’s leadership as the Middle East’s leading reformer. The consequences of failing to curb the speculation surrounding the details of the killing have been disastrous, turning back the clock on the perception of a modern Arab World by many centuries. Regardless of how the still-incomplete investigation into the grisly murder pans out, the public image of Saudi Arabia has been seriously impaired and perhaps even crippled.
There were high hopes that Saudi Arabia could redefine the perceptions of the Kingdom and the “moderate” Arab World. In 2017 President Trump attended the Riyadh Summit, where he called on the Arab World to stand up to both terrorist violence and to “extremism”. It was a call that the Saudis signalled they were prepared to lead and which opened the door to the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) – who Turkey and other critics accuse of ordering Khashoggi’s killing – to the United States in March 2018.
The Saudis used the visit to unveil many reform agendas and to recast the Kingdom in a more positive light. The Crown Prince outlined wide-ranging reforms implemented with his father King Salman, which included streamlining the government, lifting restrictions on dissidents, easing restrictions on women – including allowing them to drive – and opening movie theatres throughout the country. MBS also unveiled the cornerstone of the Kingdom’s new image, “Saudi Vision 2030,” a plan to reduce the Kingdom’s reliance on oil profits.
The media, which has been traditionally critical of the Arab World and Saudi Arabia to the point of racial bias and even discrimination, opened their arms to the Crown Prince and his entourage. All this was supposed to lead up to a conference that the Crown Prince was organising for this month called “The Future Investment Initiative,” (FII) that would have brought together the world’s wealthiest and most influential movers and shakers. The three-day conference was billed as “Davos in the Desert,” a reference to the annual World Economic Conference held every January in Davos, Switzerland, that attracts the world’s greatest economic leaders, investors and voices.
Instead, the Khashoggi killing was a gut-punch to Kingdom’s FII conference and nearly one-third of its attendees pulled out. There was some face-saving attendance and some members expressing views that, as gruesome as the Khashoggi killing was, the economic reality of the Kingdom’s hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth could not just be brushed aside.
All the progress that Saudi Arabia has made to modernise the Kingdom and improve its public image – including in the critical eyes of the Western media – has been lost and replaced by a movement backwards in time and perception. Many people today look upon Saudi Arabia in terms that are even harsher than those views adopted after the 1973 oil embargo, which fuelled anti-Arab racism in America and the West.
Until last month, Saudi Arabia was enjoying a world-wide political base that had the Western world in alliance, standing up to extremists – from the most violent extremists of ISIL and Al-Qaeda’s remnants to the more subtle state actors accused of empowering violence and terrorism, including Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and in central Yemen, where remnants of ISIL and Al-Qaeda continue to lead powerful guerrilla assaults.
Another accused enabler of extremism is Qatar, which controls the Arabic language satellite news agency Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera continues to chip away at Saudi Arabia’s public image, serving as a platform for lurid speculation and claims by Turkey that Saudi agents, acting under the direction of the royal family, tortured and butchered Khashoggi.
In the end, the longer details of Khashoggi’s killing remain unanswered, the more damage that the scepticism will have, in turn weakening the push for reform and moderation. The longer questions remain unanswered, the stronger the forces of extremism and violence will grow and the weaker the voices of moderation will be.
The only thing working in Saudi Arabia’s favour so far is that the West still sees Saudi enemies as facilitators of international terrorism. The events in Riyadh this week empowered the Saudi-US understanding to confront the financing of violence through the “Terrorist Financing Targeting Center” (TFTC), which will include more groups and individuals associated with Iran, Syria, Qatar and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia needs to take control of the investigation and release all the facts. The Saudis need to own this tragic event. Revelations must be complete, exhaustive and credible. So far, they are not. This is the only way to stop the PR-bleeding and control the self-inflicted damage. Yet the longer it takes Saudi Arabia to satisfactorily answer the burning questions, the more difficult it will be to reverse the damage. At some point soon, it might be impossible for Saudi Arabia to fully recover without a dramatic shift in the Kingdom’s political powerbase.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.