President Donald Trump is punctilious in following his dictum: if its findings do not suit him, the CIA is wrong. He wants a second opinion on the agency’s finding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman most likely ordered dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. His own interests are coming into conflict with his handpicked CIA director, Gina Haspel, elevated despite an outranged Congress opposing her appointment. Her record was so steeped in torture and rendition as to be totally in violation of “American values”.
Mr Trump, who knows all about American values, muttered on Live TV “torture works, torture works”. Nobody should now be surprised if even Ms Haspel is eased out of Mr Trump’s revolving door to make way for someone who values the national interest above the mere disposal of a dismembered body, dissolved in acid and flushed down the Saudi consul-general’s commode in Istanbul.
It would be rank bad manners to liken the US President to Caligula, but there’s a difficulty finding other comparables. Mr Trump’s project of “making America great” depends, among other forms of plunder, to depleting MBS’ billions in exchange for all the wondrous weaponry to pulverise Yemen and, of course, for the Armageddon with Iran. The Kurdish enclave abutting Turkey is, in MBS’ strategy, a sensitive pressure point on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Every time Mr Trump threatens to withdraw from the enclave, MBS turns up with bags filled with billions.
What a murder this has turned out to be. MBS is probably washing his hands in the perfumes of Arabia, like Lady Macbeth, and blabbering to himself: “Who would have thought the man to have so much blood in him”.
The toll taken by Khashoggi is fairly comprehensive. Rearguard action has come from embattled Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. He has come out unambiguously in favour of MBS (as the Crown Prince is known), without making any pretence to cover up his guilt.
Time was when MBS, Jared Kushner (the US President’s son-in-law) and Mr Netanyahu were the world’s most formidable trio. Alongside Mr Kushner, Mr Netanyahu too has his financial deals under scrutiny. And after Khashoggi, the third figure in the trio, MBS, is tilting at the windmills. The media is loathe to dwell on such truths, but Bashar al-Assad, by comparison, is looking secure and composed.
Mr Netanyahu’s public utterances also betray a high level of nervous anxiety. Mistakes may have been made, he says, but Saudi Arabia must remain stable for the stability of the region and the world. With these words he hurtled headlong into lethal airstrikes against Gaza as a diversionary tactic, on MBS’ advice. This strategy is the brainchild of the new emergency task force set up by the Royal Palace to protect MBS.
Gaza, Palestine, West Bank — these were the concerns Jamal Khashoggi was most passionate about when I interviewed him in Jeddah a few months after 9/11. In this, he wasn’t different from Prince Turki al Faisal, the former Saudi ambassador in London and Washington, and the country’s intelligence chief until a few days before 9/11. I mention Prince Turki in the same sequence as Khashoggi was a spokesman for him. In other words, there are in the kingdom powerful people holding views opposed to MBS.
To recap history — In February 2011, King Abdullah came out of convalescence in Europe and rubbed his eyes in disbelief. He found an altered West Asia, his friends Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidin Ben Ali toppled in Cairo and Tunis by the Arab Spring. He swore that no monarchies or friendly dictatorships would now be allowed to fall. The US, Britain, France, Israel, Qatar and Turkey, ostensibly responding to the Saudi initiative, fell upon Syria. Each one of the participants listed here have faced reversals.
MBS then dragged the US into a brutal war against the poorest Arab country, Yemen. Besides killing thousands of civilians including children and displacing millions, the four-year war has achieved nothing except benefiting the American and British war industry. The Saudis had boasted the Yemeni port of Hodeidah would be in their control. This would be a direct threat to Iranian ships passing through the Red Sea. The Iran-backed Houthis have doggedly held on to the port. And now MBS is on notice from a somewhat fatigued US to end the Yemen operations in weeks. Meanwhile, the much-touted “deal of the century” for Palestine remains a pipedream. It led to a scare in Amman as there is a subterranean Israeli dream to incorporate Jordan into a two-state solution.
After the recent Merkel-Macron-Erdogan-Putin summit in Istanbul, MBS, Donald Trump and Europe have cause for worry. Basically, the two European leaders implored Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan not to allow European militants, holed up in Idlib, to return via Turkish territory. Remember $4 billion was transferred to the Turks earlier to compensate Ankara for keeping 3.5 million Syrian refugees. This time Mr Erdogan is bargaining differently. He will seek autonomy of action on how he handles the Idlib militants provided he has a free run of the Kurdish enclave adjacent to Idlib and the Turkish border. This is anathema to the Saudis and Mr Trump. The Kurds in this enclave are US and Saudi assets, a pressure point on Bashar al-Assad. But Mr Erdogan holds the aces at this point — if he doesn’t get the deal he wants he can open the sluice gates for the European militants to go home. A Europe in convulsions on the immigration issue would be in a frenzy if Mr Erdogan carries out his threat.
As someone who has visited the region several times, I cannot help but wonder at the turn of events. It is astonishing that Mr Assad in Damascus, Hassan Rouhani in Tehran and Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and even Mr Erdogan and Qatar have emerged from the seven-year-long mayhem with only curable bruises. It seems all those who stood by MBS when he was the shining new star in the West Asian firmament are now distancing themselves from him, despite his incomparable oil wealth. Today, he is certainly not on the winning side.