Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s fate remains unclear, but one thing appears certain – he has been ‘disappeared’. While it will require an investigation to establish the facts, the implications of Khashoggi’s disappearance are clear.
The new Saudi leadership is now intolerant of all dissent – home or abroad. US policy has inadvertently given carte blanche to the leadership to act with impunity. The kingdom’s international partners have very little leverage over its domestic or foreign policies. And confidence among international investors is nosediving and – without a drastic change in policy – will undermine Vision 2030.
Irrespective as to whether he has been killed or transported back to Saudi Arabia, the move has laid down an indelible marker that the new Saudi leadership will brook no criticism of its transformation project Vision 2030 – levelled from within or outside the kingdom.
The detention of activists, including high profile clerics, women activists, business leaders, journalists, social media commentators and senior members of the ruling Al Saud family has become commonplace since King Salman appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), as crown prince in June 2017.
Most analysts have attributed these measures to the crown prince’s overzealous desire to introduce far-reaching social and economic changes at rapid speed and, at the same time, take full ownership of the process. In other words, while he is instituting change – for example, by allowing women to drive and introducing bankruptcy laws – he is keen to portray this as his initiative, rather than a response to public pressure.
A very generous interpretation of his approach, one where he is the one driving force pushing for deep change, argues that such actions are necessary to help offset resistance from more conservative corners within Saudi Arabia. If the ruling family are seen to be responding to public pressure, then it will allow for other interest groups, such as the clerical establishment and business community, to resist such change.
In part, analysts and commentators sympathetic to MBS’s reform agenda have argued that his shock and awe tactics in both domestic and foreign policy are critical for the success of Vision 2030 in shoring up domestic and international confidence in the project.
While there have been signals along the way that all is not what it seems – notably, the Ritz Carlton purge, the detention of Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, the diplomatic spat with Canada and the arrest of Saudi cleric Salman al-Auda – Khashoggi’s disappearance finally lays this benevolent interpretation to rest.
In the past, dissidents – and Khashoggi was no dissident – could always find a pathway back into the kingdom and a route to atonement, forgiveness and cooptation. This had been the way for decades. However, MBS has come in and altered the rules of the game.
The execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016 gave the first real indication that things were about to change and that the new leadership had lowered its threshold on permissible opposition. Of course, some will argue that al-Nimr long passed that threshold. Nonetheless, executing him amounted to a risky move, but one that seemingly brought with it little opprobrium.
And herein, the lesson was learned. The new leadership could take bold steps and make adventurous moves, as noted above, and not be called out by the West or the international community. At most, quiet messages would be passed to the Saudi leadership counselling caution, only to fall on deaf ears.
In effect, MBS supported by a slick public relations campaign and Western governments willing him to succeed with his reform agenda, wittingly or unwittingly, has given him licence to silence critics for the cause of the greater good.
The drive by Western governments to not only encourage far reaching reforms, but to also seek out economic opportunities offered by Vision 2030 has severely curtailed their ability or willingness to persuade the Saudi leadership to exercise greater constraint. Though President Trump has said he is ‘concerned’ by the disappearance, the lack of outcry from other governments, and of a stronger line from the US, is notable and regrettable.
Moreover, MBS will continue to feel emboldened and will likely act with impunity, as the kingdom has not only responded to calls from presidents Obama and Trump to stop freeriding, but also stepped up and adopted a more muscular approach to domestic and foreign policy. The Saudis and the Emiratis are now an indispensable part of Trump’s push back against Iran.
As such, the young Saudi leader feels able to act – decisively, impetuously, without a US greenlight and without paying much attention to the consequences.
There will be consequences, of course. First, investor confidence in Saudi Arabia is already beginning to nosedive and will ultimately undermine any success that Vision 2030 might have hoped to achieve.
Second, the combination of failing to meet the rising expectations of Saudi youth and simply silencing voices of dissent will likely give rise to widespread discontent.
Third, Western governments will need to re-evaluate the nature of their partnership with Saudi Arabia, from both ethical and economic viewpoints. The prospect that Vision 2030 may be derailed will damage their economic interests and standing with the Saudi population.
Khashoggi’s disappearance serves as a warning shot. It should bring forth condemnations from Western governments. It is all very well to encourage social and economic reform and to pursue much needed golden opportunities, but not at any cost.
Saudi Arabia would benefit from having more honest relationships, with its key partners and interlocutors more focused on the well-being of the kingdom, rather than the money extracted. Silencing voices like Jamal Khashoggi will only come to harm Saudi Arabia and those governments willing to back it without question.
Dr Neil Quilliam, Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.