SAUDI JOURNALIST’S DEATH HEIGHTENS GEOPOLITICAL TENSIONS
Saudi Arabia has blamed the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on a “rogue operation”, giving a new account of an act that sparked a global outcry. Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Fox News “the murder” had been a “tremendous mistake” and denied the powerful crown prince had ordered it. The journalist was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Saudis, under intense pressure to explain Khashoggi’s whereabouts, have offered conflicting accounts. Turkish officials believe Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the Saudi government, was murdered by a team of Saudi agents inside the building and say they have evidence to prove it. (BBC News)
Who was Jamal Khashoggi?
Jamal Khashoggi was a 59-year-old Saudi Arabian journalist well known in the Western world as well as the Middle East. He had been writing a monthly column for the Washington Post, and had provided commentary and analyses on various Western media channels. Before, he had worked as a prominent journalist for Saudi news agencies and was close to the Saudi royals. He also served as a government adviser for a time.
But Khashoggi’s relationship with the Saudi royal family soured, and he began to express criticism of the government and the policies of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. He ‘exiled’ himself to the United States in 2017 and had been living in Virginia with his Turkish fiancée.
What is known about his disappearance?
On 2 October, Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to acquire a document that certified his divorce from his ex-wife, so that he could be cleared to marry his fiancée. CCTV cameras outside the consulate never recorded his departure, and his ‘disappearance’ became an international incident. Much has been made of the fact that 15 alleged Saudi agents flew into Istanbul, appear to have visited the consulate around the time of Khashoggi’s appointment and then left Turkey on the same day.
Until recently, Saudi Arabia kept insisting that they did not know what had happened to Khashoggi. According to Prince bin Salman, Khashoggi had left the consulate after a little while, and others insisted that he had exited via a back entrance where there were no cameras. Then on 20 October, it was announced on Saudi television that he had died accidentally during a fight at the consulate. This statement has since been amended to say that Khashoggi was murdered during a “rogue operation” that had nothing to do with the crown prince. In recent days, 18 Saudi nationals have reportedly been arrested, and two senior officials (deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri and senior aide Saud al-Qahtani) were ousted.
Turkey, meanwhile, claimed that Khashoggi was tortured and killed at the consulate and his body was then removed, and said that there were recordings to prove it. However, these alleged recordings were not made public. On 23 October, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that there was compelling evidence that Khashoggi’s death was premeditated by the Saudis, and called for justice to be delivered in Istanbul, not Saudi Arabia.
What are some of the geopolitical implications?
While Khashoggi’s disappearance and assumed death has drawn international attention, the geopolitical shockwaves are being felt most clearly in the United States and Turkey.
From the US perspective, any conflict with Saudi Arabia could shake their alliance, which is important to both nations. Within the US, there is pressure being placed on the administration to take a harsher stance towards Saudi Arabia in response to the incident. But George Friedman of Geopolitical Futures writes the following: “The United States needs Saudi Arabia for a variety of reasons, foremost of which is to prevent Iran from expanding its power any more than it already has. This will probably trump the short-term hysteria that the assassination has engendered. There is some pressure on [Mohammed bin Salman], too, since relations with the US are a cornerstone of Saudi national security, necessary as to resist its arch-rival Iran.” He continues that while a major break in the alliance is highly unlikely, the reality is that “whatever happened in the consulate in Turkey has put in place a sequence of events that could [theoretically] upend the US-Saudi alliance.” However, the US also has oil interests in Saudi Arabia, as well as a substantial deal for the purchase of military equipment that US president Donald Trump does not want to risk.
From the Turkish perspective, matters are also complex. On the surface, Turkey is outraged about Khashoggi’s disappearance/death because it happened on Turkish soil. However, it is a flashpoint in a relationship between the two countries that has been complex and conflicted for years. According to Xander Snyder (also of Geopolitical Futures), “Saudi Arabia was born out of opposition to the Ottoman [Turkish] Empire.” At one point, the Ottomans controlled Islam’s two holiest sites – Mecca and Medina (now under Saudi authority), which made them the ‘leader’ of the Islamic world. If Turkey wants to reassert itself as a leading power, especially among Sunni Muslims (which it seems Mr Erdogan wants to do), it needs to counter Saudi Arabia’s current domination. It is interesting to note that when a Saudi-led coalition implemented a blockade of Qatar last year, both Turkey and Iran stepped forward to help Qatar. Still, Snyder does not believe that full-scale conflict between the two countries is likely to break out: “Broader geopolitical forces and shared interests will supersede any tensions arising from the Khashoggi case. Sure, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have reasons to distrust one another in the long term. But they also have reasons to cooperate, and allowing this incident to disrupt relations would be too risky for them and for the United States.”
Snyder concludes: “The US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all have an interest in de-escalating the situation. But the incident does reveal a painful truth about the stability of the kingdom today: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to contain the growing internal divide between moderates and traditionalists. As a critic of the kingdom, Khashoggi challenged the crown prince’s agenda. His disappearance has placed the US and Turkey in an awkward spot, but their long-term interests will determine their actions from here.”
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Christianity is not only a matter of private belief but often, in the eyes of others, also a matter of association. Psalm 1:1 speaks of those who avoid negative association: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers.”
For many people in the rest of the world, the US and Europe still stand as the leading ‘Christian’ nations, and their response to the Khashoggi incident will be taken as a ‘Christian response’. In this regard, it was encouraging to see the response of some Western leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it would be “impossible” to continue arms exports to Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s death, and US vice president Mike Pence said that the incident “will not go without an American response” (the CIA director was in Turkey to review evidence in the case at the time). The Western world is being called upon to take a stand, and it is important for the global Body of Christ to pray that God gives much wisdom at this time.
- For Godly wisdom for Western leaders as they respond to Saudi Arabia
- For there to be a dramatic shift in Saudi Arabia’s approach to dissent
- For journalists in Saudi Arabia to keep searching for and reporting truth