Throughout the last month the world has been gripped by the murder of the acclaimed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. After his disappearance on 2 October, when he entered the consulate in order to obtain documents for his marriage to his Turkish fiancée, there were fears that he had been killed or kidnapped.
The Turkish intelligence services immediately claimed they had evidence of his torture and death at the hands of Saudi agents, while the Saudi government strongly denied any involvement. When the Kingdom finally admitted to his death and claimed it was caused by an accidental brawl no one believed it. Since then the Turkish prosecutor has ultimately ruled that Khashoggi was strangled immediately after he entered the consulate.
Two facts in the case are indisputable: the murder will have a major impact on other states' relations with Saudi Arabia and that it signifies a significant change in the country's methods in foreign policy.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been criticised for many things: its suppressive laws, dependency on Western militaries, its financial involvement in regional conflicts through proxies, its devastating war in Yemen against the Houthis, even its historical basis.
For all of its faults, Saudi Arabia had never stooped so low as to engage in the direct political murder of dissidents living abroad. Several of its princes and family members have been "disappeared" over the past decade, and there has certainly been internal suppression against any form of dissent, but this political assassination on foreign soil is a first.
Such Machiavellian tactics sound more like a Russian or Israeli intrigue than a Saudi one. So what has changed? Why has the Kingdom resorted to a form of direct realpolitik in order to punish dissidents? The primary factor would seem to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but it would be far too simplistic to name him without analysing the link between his recent policies and the murder of Khashoggi.
Downfall of religious authority
Since becoming the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia under his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Mohammed bin Salman has implemented a variety of reforms in order to set the country on its path towards Vision 2030. The general plan to diversify the Kingdom's economy away from oil is a wise and long overdue one, as is the fight against corruption, but the methods that the Crown Prince has used have been harsh and uncompromising.
One such method has been the arrest of scholars who have not been openly supportive of his rule – such as the controversial case of Salman Al-Ouda – and the consequent stripping of the Saudi religious establishment. In October 2017 bin Salman gave a ground-breaking speech in which he announced that the Kingdom will be "returning to what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world". This has been seen throughout the past decade, when even the late King Abdullah declared that only state-vetted scholars can issue fatwas in 2010, and when the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice – the religious police – were stripped of the power to arrest in 2016.
The struggle for power between the centuries-old Saudi-Salafi pact, however, is now being led ever more vigorously by the Crown Prince. Has the stripping of religious authority come at a price though? Is there a correlation between the Machiavellian path that Saudi Arabia is taking and the downfall of the religious role in its politics?
Such a correlation has been seen countless times throughout the history of the Muslim world in particular. Take, for example, the Ottoman Empire's atrocities against the Armenian population in 1915: the incident took place after the Young Turk government, made up of Western educated secular students, overthrew the more (moderately) religious-minded Ottoman government of Sultan Abdulhamid II.
A more recent example is the treatment of protesters and dissenters in Egypt by the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government under Morsi compared to the secular military government led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which killed around 900 Egyptians in a single day in 2013 and has since imprisoned, tortured, and executed countless more and continues to do so.
Other examples can be seen outside the Muslim world, such as the atrocities committed by atheistic governments of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and presently communist China.
Such atrocities without hesitation are characteristic of many secular governments around the world which do not have full democratic rights to keep them in check, nor do they have the spiritually restraining power of religion to do that. The main argument for this is that the fear of a God and a hereafter in which one is held accountable for their actions in this life is not simply beneficial on an individual level, but also on a state level. The famed 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, an atheist himself, admitted the downside of removing a religious moral structure from the political realm and recognised that to accept that "God is dead" would result in a wave of totalitarian bloodshed. And that is exactly what happened in the following century.
Saudi Arabia has been criticised extensively throughout its history, but some of the Kingdom's positive actions over the past few decades – its financial support in rebuilding war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Palestine though at the huge cost of having its educational programs and political ideology expanded in those countries – are now being stained with the blood of innocents.
The audacity to conduct a direct political assassination of Khashoggi on foreign soil, however, heralds a new era. By stripping his country of its religious structure and its consequent religious authority, Mohammed bin Salman is embarking upon the path of making the Kingdom just another imitation of any previous secular Arab republic with Israeli tactics of political assassinations.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.