Jamal Khashoggi’s murder is one of the most mediatized cases in modern history. Rarely did a man’s fate provoke such an international uproar, taking up the attention of the US president for weeks and pushing western capitals to treat Saudi Arabia almost like a rogue state. The reaction surprised the Saudi leadership and tarnished its image abroad but it is unlikely to alter the policies of its de facto ruler, crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS).
Investigations are ongoing to uncover the crime but most indicators point to the responsibility of the crown prince’s inner circle. If Saudi Arabia was a democracy, MBS would have been deposed, investigated and even arrested if proven guilty. And if the crown prince was the reformer he claims to be, Jamal Khashoggi would have died in Saudi Arabia of old age and received a state funeral, not killed and dismembered like a medieval criminal. Someone like Khashoggi, with his international aura and reformist ideas, is what a country like Saudi Arabia needs if it wants to move forward.
Yet Saudi Arabia is not a democracy and MBS is not a reformer. The latter was described as some kind of Meiji Emperor who would revolutionize his country. But his hasty decisions, cruel manners, mercurial nature and centralization of power showed that he is at best a new Gaddafi. But against all odds, his throne does not seem threatened.
The rise of MBS was spectacular; from his father’s assistant in early 2015 to the man in charge of defense, political, economic, social and intelligence affairs in the country. And he keeps ascending. It is telling that after King Salman supposedly intervened in Khashoggi’s case, and after two of MBS’ trusted aides were sacked, the crown prince was given a new task: that of restructuring the Kingdom’s main intelligence agency. In a way, Khashoggi’s death allowed him to concentrate more power in his hands.
True, western capitals, organizations and companies showed their disdain for the way Khashoggi was treated, some even directly criticizing the crown prince. However, as the attendance of the Future Investment Initiative conference shows, the west is not abandoning Saudi Arabia. Soon this crisis will be diluted and business interests will prevail. In Realism, the values of democracy and human rights come second when business and security interests are on the table, and Sisi’s Egypt remains a case-study. After facing an initial boycott and a series of condemnations in 2013, Egypt gradually reconquered its place as a Western ally without changing its authoritarian politics. Those putting pressure on Riyadh today do not aim to transform it into a democracy; some are perhaps hoping for more restraint from the crown prince, others are responding to the temporary anger of their civil societies, but most are looking to strike big deals that a weaker Saudi Arabia would seek.
And while the most daring attacks against MBS came from Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been cautious. Some saw Turkey’s moves as an attempt to separate King Salman from MBS, and others speculated about a possible replacement of the crown prince in the aftermath of this affair. However, the person pulling the strings in Riyadh is not the King nor the al-Saud clan; it is the crown prince. And he will not resign, he is too ambitious for that.
Erdogan is aware of this. Actually, the leaks that his affiliated media posted and the comments issued by him or his close advisors seem to have another goal. The murder was a blow to Turkey’s security and to Erdogan’s ego; therefore he needed to react. But Saudi Arabia is an important neighbor and the young crown prince may rule the country for the next half century; alienating Riyadh is therefore a risky bet. Erdogan hence opted for a restrained humiliation of the crown prince while keeping a door open. It is notable that there were no withdrawal of ambassadors following the murder and that Erdogan’s comments were always milder than the leaked stories.
What was leaked from Ankara to the media about a Saudi proposal to lift the blockade on Qatar, MBS’ conciliatory comments about Qatar following Erdogan’s speech, as well as the obsequious tone used by the Saudi official sources to talk about Turkey, all this points to a deal being cooked between Ankara and Riyadh, the outcome of which is alleviating the blockade on Qatar. A few scapegoats would be sacrificed by the Saudis to calm Erdogan’s ire, and the Saudi media outlets would decrease their campaigns against Turkey.
If this were to happen, relationships between Turkey and Saudi Arabia would resume as normal. There will be no avenging for Khashoggi, nor justice.