Saudi dissidents don't just vanish into thin air. If anything, they are deliberately disappeared, as was the case with journalist and prominent media commentator Jamal Khashoggi several days ago. He entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to sign papers relating to his forthcoming marriage but has not been seen since.
Shocking? Certainly. Reckless? Absolutely. But the Saudi kingdom figured it could get away with it.
Following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in January 2015, Mohammad bin Salman, or MBS as he is sometimes called, was made defense minister and then later Crown Prince. The country’s most prominent decision maker, he has led his country into one disaster after another.
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His grandiose plan, Vision 2030, an ambitious attempt to restructure the Saudi economy to make the desert kingdom less dependent on oil, reduce the country’s debt, boost the private sector, build tall sophisticated compounds and grant women more rights, was stillborn.
While the publicity associated with giving women the right to drive drew positive attention, in reality there has been a fatal lack of detailed forward planning behind the flawed vision, and it all depends too much on the central role of MBS himself. Human rights are still a problem, the Kingdom remains closed, women are far from being equal, tribalism remains deeply rooted and corruption and nepotism is rife.
The response of MBS to the lack of investor enthusiasm to his plan and the resultant cash-flow problem was to round up Saudi businessmen and hold them captive at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton hotel, as part of a so-called anti-corruption probe. Confessions were signed after torture and under duress while billions of siphoned dollars were handed over to the Saudi authorities.
But it didn’t encourage foreign investors. In August 2018, ARAMCO’s estimated $2 trillion floatation for a 5% per cent stake in the company - which was essential to funding the crown prince’s grand vision - was abruptly called off.
Some of the other MBS disasters include doubling down in the Yemen civil war - which seems to have no end in sight, kidnapping and forcing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign only for Hariri to rescind his resignation upon his return to Lebanon, a failed boycott of Qatar which has utterly failed to convince Doha to align its foreign policy with the Gulf Cooperation Council, and an inability to prevent Iranian dominance in Syria with the looming victory of Bashar Assad.
Despite harsh clampdowns on civil society and on domestic opponents of Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey is – surprisingly - a relatively open place for those involved in Middle Eastern politics to work. That’s true for a heterogenous spectrum of activists: Iranian dissidents, Syrian exiles and Hamas members.
It seems that the thought of an increasingly critical Khashoggi, who split his time between the U.S. and UK, also partly basing himself in Turkey, a country which has been on the opposite end of MBS’s policies - it supported Qatar during last year’s crisis and seems to have come to an understanding with Iran over Syria - was simply too much for MBS to bear.
Tensions are already simmering between Turkey and Saudi over Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (against the Saudi-backed President Sisi) and in general competes with Saudi Arabia for influence, status and leadership in the Sunni Muslim world.
Although still waiting for the results of the investigation to unfold, President Erdogan has already indicated that he is taking a personal interest in this case.
If investigators conclude that Khashoggi was murdered on Turkish soil, Erdogan will take it as personal affront. The firebrand Turkish president is not known to take kindly to insults (and never misses an opportunity for point-scoring either) and will no doubt go on the offensive against Saudi Arabia.
However, it is highly unlikely that Turkey will receive any meaningful support, especially from the West.
Western powers seldom vocalize official opposition to Saudi policies. There was an important exception last summer when Canada issued a condemnation in Arabic of the Kingdom’s abysmal human rights record and its poor treatment of dissidents.
The response was swift and severe. Canada’s ambassador was given 24 hours to pack his bags. Riyadh future declared trade deals and bilateral investments cancelled.
Ottawa received little international backing. Its powerful neighbor to the south washed its hands of the matter. U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said it was up to the Saudi and Canadian governments to resolve their differences. Similar sentiments were echoed across Europe.
MBS can rest comfortably knowing that President Donald Trump seems to like Saudi Arabia, and European nations need Saudi oil to continue to flow at a reasonable price. Meanwhile, U.S., British and French arms deals with Saudi are worth billions of dollars. Germany’s and Italy’s are worth hundreds of millions. With billions at stake the Western nations might do is voice a silent displeasure, a whisper in a thunderstorm.
Instead, get ready to witness the spectacle of Turkey, whose security services - since the failed 2016 coup - have abducted as many as 100 members of the Gulen movement overseas and implemented a purge that has netted hundreds of thousands of critics and jailed over 100 journalists, condemn Saudi Arabia for its overseas misdeeds and treatment of dissidents.
That’s right, two of the world's biggest suppressors of the freedom of expression are about to go at it over each country’s violation of fundamental freedoms. To make matters worse, President Erdogan and Crown Prince Mohammed probably won’t even get the irony.
Dr Simon A. Waldman is a Mercator-IPC fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center and a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of The New Turkey and Its Discontents (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1