Here are a few thoughts on the still unfolding Khashoggi scandal and story.
First, I think critics of Saudi Arabia should take some solace from the fact that the Saudis I believe had and perhaps still have a narrow window in which they could depose Mohammed bin Salman and wash their hands of Khashoggi’s murder. Yet they show no sign of doing so. Saudi Arabia has long been a brutal and utterly repressive regime. But in the last few years it’s become a different kind of brutal and utterly repressive regime. Saudi Kings – all sons of state founder ibn Saud since 1953 – have generally ruled by consensus within the upper echelons of the al Saud clan. That’s one reason so many longstanding challenges have gone unresolved or postponed. It’s not a system which makes room for dynamic leadership. It’s a highly conservative ruling circle which doesn’t do a lot of dangerous or crazy things. Until now.
This isn’t meant to create a rose-tinged gloss on Saudi history. Far from it. But MBS’s quasi one man rule is new and the Khashoggi killing is just one in a string of impulsive, high stakes and very questionable moves: the war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, the interference in the 2016 US presidential election, the bizarre fight with Canada.
It’s not easy to depose a de facto king. But if the Saudis had said: “Look, MBS was nuts. He’s not king anymore. That was him not us” there’d be a certain credibility to the claim and probably enough for a lot of international partners to say, “Okay, glad we’re back to business as usual.”
What I think we’re seeing now is that the Khashoggi crisis is encouraging foreign states and journalists who aren’t as easily killable to start sifting through the Saudis’ dirty laundry, of which there is an almost infinite supply. That means surfacing a lot of ugliness and ugliness that won’t unsurface even if MBS eventually leaves the scene.
Another point worth observing is the near universal hostility to Saudi Arabia currently, across the partisan spectrum, with the exception of the most dyed-in-the-wool Trumpers. What it makes me wonder is whether we were already closer to a tipping point with the Saudis than at least casual observers like me realized. You have all the things I’ve mentioned above. You’ve had lots of reporting about MBS’s authoritarian government. But there’s been no real push to cut off weapons sales or punish the Saudis in any other way, not in Congress, not with anyone who has any power to make it happen. But suddenly that’s all changed on a dime, and quickly enough that I suspect the relationship was actually weaker than it seemed.