Turkey, one of the most heavily surveilled countries in the world, reportedly has an audio recording of the torture and murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. According to an unnamed senior Turkish official who claims to have heard the recording, the 15-man hit squad beat Khashoggi, cut off his fingers, chopped off his head, dismembered him with a bone saw and threatened the hapless Saudi consul when he tried to protest. “If you want to live when you come back to Arabia, shut up,” one of the agents told the consul, according to The New York Times.
Even before these details emerged, the horrific crime was unfurling into a nightmare for crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. On Wednesday, King Salman had to submit to a sit-down with Mike Pompeo, Trump’s latest secretary of state, and American arms sales to the kingdom might get put in the time-out corner, to judge from the irate statements of senators like Marco Rubio. All the rich people in New York, Washington, Silicon Valley and Hollywood who used to love hanging out with Saudi royalty are canceling trips to Riyadh, returning Saudi checks and uninviting the crown prince from their parties and conferences.
The Saudis must be a little confused by the backlash. The hit on Khashoggi may look like a miscalculation, but they had every reason to think they’d get away with it. Saudi Arabia has long been one of the world’s most authoritarian countries, a reprobate monarchy whose enforcement of Sharia law is virtually on par with the Islamic State’s. The list of heinous things they’ve done is long; just this year, as the world was fawning over the young Mohammad bin Salman’s gestures toward reform, the Saudi government beheaded 48 people within a four-month period, the Saudi state media agency tweeted a not-very-veiled threat of a 9/11-style attack on Canada, and a Saudi-led coalition dropped a bomb on a school bus in Yemen, killing 40 little kids.
That didn’t really bother the American ruling class though. Nor is it anything new. Lest we forget, 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and there’s evidence that alleged Saudi intelligence officers were in contact with two of the hijackers before the attack. (The Bush administration famously classified 28 pages of the 9/11 report about Saudi ties to the hijackers; Obama declassified it in 2016, though some material remains redacted.)
But Saudi Arabia is given a pass, and not just because they have tons of oil, although that’s certainly part of it. Their main geopolitical role vis-à-vis the United States is absorbing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American weaponry, whose manufacture props up our heavily subsidized military-industrial economy. Saudi Arabia buys even more military hardware than Israel, the United States’ other imperial proxy in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is the defense industry’s best customer aside from the Pentagon, and that goes a long way in Washington.
Trump’s very first foreign visit as head of state was to Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh, Trump shamelessly genuflected before the House of Saud and committed the United States to a massive $110 billion arms deal. Trump has financial ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, including a predictably gauche golf course in Dubai, and the Trump family and the Saudi royals share a love of tacky real estate, golden toilets and crushing dissent. Mohammad bin Salman’s flattery and courtship of the Trump administration — Jared Kushner in particular — seems to be paying off. On Wednesday, Trump defended Saudi Arabia and complained that they were being treated as “guilty until proven innocent.”
The Saudis are well known for spending lavishly on American think tanks, university endowments, lobby shops, investor conferences and press junkets like this month’s so-called Davos in the Desert, which was set to be attended by the likes of Blackstone Group, BlackRock, JPMorgan Chase, Ford Motor Company, Google, Uber, CNBC, The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times, The Economist, CNN and Fox Business Network, but now looks to be going to way of Fyre Festival. (Disclosure: Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has reportedly invested $200 million in Penske Media Corp., Rolling Stone’s parent company.)
Since last June, when he was named crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman managed to ingratiate himself with American journalists. In November 2017, Thomas Friedman penned an embarrassingly credulous op-ed in The New York Times titled Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, At Last, about the crown prince’s rise to power. “The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia,” he wrote. At the time, the Saudi military was tightening its blockade of Yemen, which now has 13 million Yemenis on the brink of starvation — the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations. Fifty-thousand Yemeni children died of malnutrition and disease last year as a result of the war, enabled by the Pentagon, which is backstopping the Saudi military’s operations in Yemen. But thanks to low-bar reforms like letting wealthy women in Riyadh and Jeddah drive cars, pundits like Friedman promoted the crown prince as a charming, youthful reformer, and during his April visit to the United States bin Salman was fêted by the likes of Sergey Brin and Jeff Bezos.
So how is it that one murdered journalist has changed everything? Maybe it’s because Khashoggi was an affluent professional who lived in Virginia and worked for The Washington Post and therefore counts as a human being, while the people of Yemen have brown skin and live in mud-brick homes and are therefore unpersons who can be killed with impunity. But even that doesn’t quite explain the ferocity of the backlash to the Khashoggi killing. It seems that in a polluted, overheated, overpopulated world, replete with inequality and injustice, ruled by awful authoritarian regimes and a rapacious capitalist class, a crime like the Khashoggi murder can become a sop for pent-up outrage, and the denunciations will pile on in a frenzy of moral posturing by politicians and elites who ignored or actively abetted even worse atrocities.
At a time like this, Trump’s response to the whole thing is almost refreshing. Sure, we’ll do an investigation, he’s said, but no matter what, we’re not going to stop selling the Saudis weapons. Because $110 billion is a lot of money, and the guy wasn’t even a U.S. citizen. It would be worse if Trump pretended to care about human rights and democracy and quietly went on selling the Saudis missiles and warplanes and helping them destroy Yemen like a Hillary Clinton administration almost certainly would have done. And that might be what really drives the Washington establishment nuts about Trump’s foreign policy — not so much the substance as his lack of decorum, his failure to observe traditional pieties.
In the end, it’s unlikely anything will change as a result of the Khashoggi incident. Saudi Arabia will not stop bombing Yemen. They will not stop starving Yemeni children. Their history of chopping people’s hands off for theft and stoning women to death for adultery will continue to go unmentioned by the American bankers and businessmen who will soon go back to cashing Saudi checks and luxuriating in opulent resorts with Saudi princes. Mohammad bin Salman may have to designate someone to take the fall for a “rogue operation” or “botched interrogation” or whatever cockamamie cover story they cook up to get through the news cycle, and that person may have to spend some time under house arrest, but soon this will have all blown over. I’d give it a month.