As Erdogan, MbS and Trump Barter for their Own Political Safety – Expect Fake News Soon
The photos of Mike Pompeo recently in Riyadh laughing and making small talk with the Saudi crown prince in Riyadh says a lot about how serious the Trump camp is at getting to the truth about what happened to Saudi journalist and wannabe dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Indeed, the photo of state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert having a really good holiday there goes further.
Trump has no intention of holding the Saudis to account for Khashoggi’s murder. And neither does he hold so dearly the $110 billion dollar arms deal, which he uses as a pretext to hold back on any really bellicose campaign to get to the truth.
But he is not alone. None of the players in this sad story – Turkey’s mercurial and authoritarian leader Recep Erdogan, nor Mohammad bin Salman (now nicknamed ‘Mr. Bone Saw’ and no longer MbS by some), nor Trump want the truth to be revealed. Each has his own agenda and objectives and what we are witnessing currently in the farcical play for the cameras is that Khashoggi is being traded like a commodity.
Perhaps even sadder is the wholesale scramble over his corpse by the very same media organizations who fawned him as a reformer of the middle east but who have since been exposed as being glutinous, self-righteous click bait hungry machines, bereft of moral fibre and also squeezing the last drop out of Khashoggi as they can. In the case of the tearful Washington Post editor who worked with him, I believe she spends more time tweeting and raising her profile than actually editing anything.
But what do the superpowers want from Khashoggi now? What’s the real deal?
Let’s start with the simplest and dumbest. Trump needs to reduce the heat from US media as it is putting him in an uncomfortable situation for a whole host of reasons. Firstly, he doesn’t need the press looking too closely at his – or his son in law’s – murky dealings with the Saudis or other billionaires in the region, like the Qataris. Bad for business and potentially a political bombshell. Until now, the American press has been remarkable impotent in holding his family to account to shady deals which have already been struck. Is even the most moronic hack even at Fox News buying the line about needing to preserve a $110 billion dollars of arms sales – particularly as this figure he made up entirely himself and that most of the deal was struck during the Obama administration anyway?
The truth is that the Saudis have only actually spent around $4 billion dollars to date and they can pull the plug on that at any time, as the Lebanese and the French know to their own costs. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is his entire Middle East foray, which has not quite become a disaster, but it’s heading that way. If US media starts probing what Trump is doing in the middle east, he might be in real trouble. His Palestinian buffoonery has backfired – to the point where even the Saudi King had to pull back from it – and his Iran campaign is looking, at best, lame. While India looks like it will not defy his ‘secondary sanctions’ against Iran, the EU, by comparison, has come up with a scheme allowing European governments and companies to buy Iranian oil.
Trump’s nightmare explained
The Khashoggi affair is making many of his own supporters question the rationale behind demonizing Iran and Hezbollah with slurs of ‘terrorist’ (despite both of them doing much more to crush Sunni extremist groups in the region than the US ever could) while investing in Saudi Arabia, a country which bone saws its critics to death after capturing them. Trump’s nightmare scenario above all is that his Iran campaign fails and the truth emerges that, in fact, it was entirely driven by arms sales to Gulf Arab countries and not really based on the truth. Already some critics of the kingdom are already talking about Riyadh looking more to Russia and China as geopolitical partners. Iran is part of that sphere.
For Erdogan, his list of needs from the US is long. But on top of that list is the exiled cleric Gulen who Erdogan, at least, believes is the brains behind the July 2016 attempted coup d’etat and whom Trump refuses to extradite. Erdogan could also do with the Americans pulling out entirely of the Kurdish held north of Syria, to stop sending the Kurd’s arms (who they believe to be PKK terrorists) and to boost trade in Turkey. Right now, the Turkish leader is playing a game with both the Saudis and the Americans over the audio and video recordings he claims to have of Khashoggi’s death. If released, it would give Trump an enormous problem as he would have to deliver on his promises to “punish” the Saudis, which is really would prefer not to do.
Given the amateur and remarkable histrionics recently of Pompeo in Riyadh, we can assume though that he is prepared to push this laughable notion to its limits, that somehow a ‘rogue’ killer was responsible. No one is buying this, but the US press is so ineffective in mocking the US president, that Trump may well be thinking that this ruse might just work. Much will depend on the journalists in the US to use this as fodder to destroy him, which would be the case without any doubt in France or the UK.
For the Saudis, they have their own needs as well both from Trump and from Erdogan and are also playing a cool hand. Erdogan had been teasing them leading up to the Saudi’s investment summit in Riyadh with more and more lurid details being leaked to the press of how Khashoggi’s last few minutes alive went. The Saudis, who have no real media of their own, are not disturbed by this, as such. They think that given Turkey has the worst record in the world when it comes to throwing journalists in jail, that western reporters and Oped writers will treat the Turkish leaks with some skepticism. However, there are indications that Saudi is ready to end the blockade of Qatar to appease Erdogan – which makes the Turkish leader look like a real deal breaker in the Middle East and please Trump in the same shot.
But while the Saudis continue to believe that the wrath of western media wouldn’t harm them, they couldn’t be more wrong.
We are living in an era of sloppy journalism where what Erdogan’s cops say, might as well be reported as the truth when it comes to treating the Saudis.
What they require from Erdogan are the recordings and that he makes a statement at some point dismissing the leaks as “unofficial” and “not accurate.” But the deal is still in the early stages. The Turks are no doubt asking for a lot from the Saudis, who, it should be noted hate them, not only for being supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood but also allies with Qatar and Iran. What they want is more investment in Turkey from the Saudis and for Riyadh to scrap the Qatar blockade. But they also want the Saudis to help the Turks push Ankara’s hegemony in the region, which is why the deal is not working for the moment. Saudi stubbornness. For them, to help Turkey is to help the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an extremist organization which is very similar in many ways to the Saudi’s own unique religious ideology – Wahhabism – which it wields to rule a country and keeps it in the dark ages.
All the Saudis want are the recordings. They believe that the gargantuan exit of foreigners from MbS’s ‘Davos in the Dessert’ investment drive was not significant. All they are focussing on is how they can re-write the news, remanufactured and re-packaged, with all the soundbites, interviewees and scapegoats oil money can buy, and, presumably with a little help from Trump and his friends at Fox. They are sending messages to Erdogan that his tapes are not worth as much though as he might think and just sent 100m dollars to Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria – via Washington – to remind him that they have ways of making his life difficult. Erdogan has replied by releasing the audio clips – to selected individuals – one by one, a sort of Turkish torture treatment for the Saudis to endure.
The tapes may well end up being all released to the public. Who knows what will happen in this vortex of fake news, corruption, and lies? What is deeply lacking is old school investigative journalism to hold Trump to account so that he doesn’t align himself to an even more ridiculous charade about to be played out by the Saudis as they attempt to save themselves – from a nervous, insecure leader who will be remembered in history as an Arab prince who practically invented the adage ‘when in hole, keep digging.’
The truth is that no one cares about Khashoggi, who was, in reality, a traitor to the Saudi elite and who lived a great life with their money while he served them dutifully all his life, manufacturing their fake news around the clock most of his life. To leave them and use that privilege and unique insight against them and to believe he could get away with it, was naive at best. His judgment was clouded when he entered the consulate on October 2. Trump’s judgment equally now is clouded as he, like the Saudi royals, both hold a cosmic contempt for journalists and what their stock currency is, or should be – the truth. Khashoggi is merely a commodity being traded, like a container of Brazillian coffee and the sooner the west admits it, the better.