More than a Saudi PR disaster

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Jamal Khashoggi at a meeting of US secretary of state and King Salman

The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and critic of Mohammed bin Sultan (aka MbS), has ripped apart the image the ruling Saudi prince had crafted for himself as a “moderniser”. The details of Khashoggi’s killing — he was enticed into the Saudi consulate in Turkey and butchered with a hacksaw — reads like a script from a horror movie.

MbS, the 33 year old defacto Saudi ruler, was hailed as an example of the new generation of enlightened Western educated princes. Since taking power in the oil-rich kingdom he has curtailed some of the excessive corruption, defanged the hated morality police, and granted women the right to drive. He even lifted the ban on cinemas and public music events, moves that won him many admirers in the West.

That he ordered the murder of a liberal critic from one of the leading Saudi families highlights the arrogance of the Saudi monarchy and the depravity of the western backed kingdom. But the murder has consequences that are much greater than a tarnished image.

Since the US defeat in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been vying for more influence in the region.

Saudi Arabia, which bankrolled the counter-revolution in Egypt and is embroiled in a devastating war on Yemen, has made its top priority to counter Iran’s growing control over Iraq and Syria as well as crushing the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, seen by many as the mainstream opposition to Arab dictators.

As part of this strategy the Saudis have come into conflict with Turkey, a regional ally of Saudi rival Qatar, which is the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief sponsor. When the Saudis initiated an economic blockade on Qatar, the tiny but very rich kingdom welcomed Turkish troops, a move that draws a military line across Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia.

Turkish president Recep Erdogan has also used his military muscle to call a halt to Syria, Russia and Iran’s offensive on the last rebel strongholds in northern Syria, now under indefinite Turkish protection.

This three-way struggle has placed the US in an awkward mess. Turkey is a member of the NATO military alliance, but since the rise of Erdogan it has found itself increasingly at odds with its long-time ally.

This fractious relationship is further complicated by the US support for the Kurds in Syria, as well as Donald Trump’s recent threats to derail the Turkish economy.

Khashoggi’s murder has tilted the balance in Erdogan’s direction, and he has leaked the lurid details of the killing to push Saudi Arabia and the US into a corner. On the day of his speech, where he promised to lay “naked the truth” about the killing, the US sent the CIA director to Turkey.

Who knows what concessions were made to the Turkish president, but it is a sign of his growing power, and the nervousness with which the West is now viewing the Saudi prince.

Erdogan also demanded that the ageing Saudi king put his princeling back in his box and hand over the murder suspects to Turkish authorities. Both are an act of diplomatic humiliation.

One consequence of the murder is that MbS’s much heralded “Davos in the Desert” investment conference flopped. Many of the high profile participants, as well as Western ministers and assorted billionaires no longer want to be associated with the “modern prince”. Those who turned up hid their name badges from journalists.

Underlying it all is the weakening Saudi economy (the conference was an attempt to attract much needed Western investment), the suppression of any criticism, even in its most mild-mannered form, as well as that deep, deep fear that the waves of revolutions unleashed in 2011 were never really extinguished.