Commentary / World

How much do we know about Saudi Arabia?

by Kuni Miyake

One of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent journalists has been missing since Oct. 2. He was last seen entering the building of the Consulate-General of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul. Turkish officials and media say he was murdered inside the consulate, while the government in Riyadh fiercely denies the reports.

Washington seems to be divided. The mainstream media as well as Congress are deeply concerned about this potentially brutal human rights abuse, even warning of severe sanctions against the oil-rich desert kingdom. The Trump administration is still ambiguous about what kind of punitive measures it will take if and when Saudi Arabia’s involvement is confirmed.

Seen from Tokyo, I would say nobody seems to have grasped the entire picture of this incredible incident. I am a former Arabic language officer at the Foreign Ministry. Although I was never stationed in Saudi Arabia, my minimum knowledge about the kingdom and the Middle East raises the following questions.

1. Is his family name Khashoggi?

English-language media spell his name “Jamal Khashoggi,” probably because he uses that spelling. The Japanese media follow their Western counterpart and pronounce the name “KA-SHO-GI.” They are wrong. If you know Arabic, you don’t call his name like this. His family name is pronounced “Khaa-shuq-jee” in his native language.

It was almost two weeks after he disappeared in Istanbul when CNN finally started changing the pronunciation of his family name from “Kha-show-guee” to “Kha-shuq-she,” still close but no cigar. You may say it is just a pronunciation and you are probably right. The question, however, does not end here.

2. He is not a dissident journalist.

Name pronunciation aside, who is Jamal Khashoggi? Wikipedia describes him as “a Saudi journalist, author, and the former general manager and editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel” and “editor for Saudi newspaper Al Watan, turning it into a platform for Saudi progressives.” I don’t challenge that.

If you know the Khashoggi family in Saudi Arabia, however, you will find him not just an ordinary journalist critical of the royal Saud family. Khashoggi was born in 1958 in the holy city of Medina (Al Madina in Arabic). His grandfather, Muhammad, was a personal physician to King Abdulaziz, the founder of the kingdom.

Khashoggi is also a nephew of Adnan Khashoggi, the famous arms dealer of Saudi Arabia who was once reportedly involved in the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid-1980s. Some pundits called him a dissident in Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, Kashoggi has been a part of the establishment in the tightly closed desert kingdom.

3. Why did he disappear?

The latest Washington Post report hints that Muhammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia commonly known as MBS, “ordered an operation to lure Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then detain him, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials discussing the plan.”

The report did not surprise me because it was out of the fear of young and immature MBS about a “threat from inside.” Khashoggi knew too well about the royal family and especially about the crown prince. Something might have gone wrong when Khashoggi was captured. He might have died accidentally rather than intentionally.

4. How much did U.S. President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner know about the kingdom?

Nobody knows what really happened inside the Saudi consulate. What is more important, if the news reports are correct, is what might have prompted MBS to try such a gamble as luring Khashoggi back to the kingdom and detain him. Why would a smart prince like MBS think this would be tolerated by the international community?

Some experts in Washington, especially on the Democratic side, refer to Kushner as “emboldening the Saudi Crown Prince.” While nobody can prove the allegation, many Middle East experts have been concerned about the outcome of the “princeling” diplomacy by Kushner and MBS.

It is unusual for the United States to have neither U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia nor Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East and for the bilateral relations to be totally dependent on the two crown princes. Even if the two behave themselves, they are too busy. And if they don’t, it is extremely dangerous.

5. Has Saudi Arabia changed under MBS?

Without doubt MBS is the last hope for the future of Saudi Arabia. In the 1970s, when I was sent to Cairo to study Arabic, the population of the desert kingdom was estimated around 6 million. Now it is 24 million and the average per capita income has dropped to almost a quarter of the 1970s level.

The kings and princes have long been aware that this was coming, but little was done to reverse the trend. The Saud monarchy has tried several times to change the kingdom by introducing structural reform plans for its oil-dependent economy and dozens of job training programs for its all civil-servant population.

Who knows? MBS may be no exception to the rules in Riyadh or he could pull off a miracle for the ailing kingdom. No matter what happens in the future, the Khashoggi incident will be remembered as part of MBS’s desperate attempts to change the kingdom that his grandfather founded.

6. What shall we do about this tragedy?

There is not much we can do about this because the Saudi royal family would not admit the crime, even if they had committed it. If they accepted the allegation, they are afraid that it could be the beginning of the end of the legitimacy of the Saud family to rule the peninsula as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

Since the founding of the kingdom, the Saudis have been always “going my way” and wanting the rest of the world to “leave them alone.” If MBS wants to change this, he must accept international standards and norms. If he doesn’t, the international community will no longer tolerate such ego-centric behavior on the part of Saudi Arabia.

This is the first and probably the biggest test for MBS as a leader of the kingdom of once happy Saudi Arabia.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.