Why Did Saudi Arabia Kill Time’s Person of the Year?
Recently, Time Magazine named murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, along with other persecuted journalists, as its person of the year. It has been more than two months since Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate never to leave again. There has been considerable coverage of the grizzly nature of the murder, the assault on journalism it represents, and the international fallout for Saudi Arabia it has caused. However, there has been much less coverage on why Saudi Arabia killed Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi was one of the most well-known Saudi political commentators in the United States. For the Saudi government to kill him inside a consulate in such a brazen way, it had to expect a severe international backlash that would undo all of the efforts to market Mohammad bin Salman as a young, liberal, reformer trying to build a new Saudi Arabia. What was it about Jamal Khashoggi that made him so dangerous to MbS?
Was Jamal Khashoggi an Opponent of the Regime?
“Mohammad bin Salman is doing the right thing, but in a very wrong way!” – Jamal Khashoggi
Khashoggi has a well-documented history of working for the Saudi government, the Saudi media, and influential figures within Saudi society close to the royal family. As recently as 2015 Khashoggi was working for prominent Saudi Royal and former head of Saudi Intelligence Prince Turki al Faisal. He also tried to establish a media company with Saudi Billionaire Walid Bin Talal— who was famously “detained” by Mohammad bin Salman in the Ritz Carlton during a crackdown on “corruption” in 2016.
However, even though he vehemently insists that he’s a supporter of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi system, he was clearly opposed to many of the key policies and methods of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman like the Neom futuristic city that the Saudi government will pay $500 billion for, the decision to list 5% of Saudi Aramco as an IPO, the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, the blockade against Qatar, and his final column for the Washington Post which called for ending the Saudi War in Yemen.
“Recep Tayyip Erdogan came across as a committed Islamic-oriented leader who is deeply concerned about the Muslim Ummah.” – Jamal Khashoggi (2016)
Even though Khashoggi doesn’t care for MbS and is highly critical of Iran, there is a leader in the Middle East that he does seem to respect: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In an interview that Khashoggi conducted with the Turkish President in Ankara, the two discussed all of the common interests between Saudi Arabia and Turkey and ways for the two countries to work together. The interview also followed Erdogan’s meeting with the other Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Nayef who would later be abruptly replaced by Mohammad bin Salman. It was the third time that Khashoggi had interviewed Erdogan, and took place less than two months after the attempted coup d’etat in Turkey that lead to mass arrests of the alleged coup supporters. After Khashoggi’s disappearance Erdogan referred to him as both a journalist and a “friend.”
Khashoggi has consistently advocated for greater cooperation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and in particular using Turkey to help counterbalance Iran in the region. One of the demands made by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt was to close a Turkish Military base that was under construction in Qatar. Turkey reacted by expediting the building process. Turkey shares a common ideological vision for the Middle East with Qatar, and that vision supports both the Muslim Brotherhood and the revolutions of the Arab Spring.
The Muslim Brotherhood
“The Muslim Brotherhood are his natural allies. Saudi Arabia is a revivalist Islam country, and he [Mohammed bin Salman] cannot run away from that.” – Jamal Khashoggi
In his final interview, only a few days before his disappearance, Khashoggi reiterated a claim he had made before: “Saudi Arabia is the Mother and Father of Political Islam.” Not only does Khashoggi disagree with the Saudi government’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he also describes the Muslim Brotherhood as Mohammad bin Salman’s “natural allies” and compares them to the founders of Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi generally agrees with the thesis that the Arab Spring was a proof of concept for the Muslim Brotherhood, demonstrating that it represented an enormous segment of the Islamic world after winning elections in several Arab countries. At the same time, he also critiques the Muslim Brotherhood. He describes their two catastrophic miscalculations as turning against Saudi Arabia, historically their biggest supporter, for inviting the American soldiers in Saudi Arabia, and for the way that they governed in Egypt. Even though he praised the Brotherhood for raising the slogan of “Democracy is the Solution” just as they had previously used the slogan of “Islam is the solution” he argued the brotherhood did not do enough to defend democracy.
Khashoggi admits to a being an “activist” for the Muslim Brotherhood when he was a student, but now depicts himself as a journalist calling merely for breathing space to allow for criticizing and debating the reforms going on in Saudi Arabia; basically allowing him to do his job as a journalist. However, he is conscious that such a space will be positive for the Muslim Brotherhood.
While the killing of Jamal Khashoggi may appear to be a strategic miscalculation or a complete public relations fiasco for Mohammad bin Salman, it is also important to keep in mind that he likely has another audience in mind: the Saudi domestic audience. Khashoggi wanted to depict himself as a patriotic Saudi and a defender of the Saudi system, who is just not on board with MbS. The Crown Prince wants to send the message that there is no Saudi system without him— there is no return to Mohammad bin Nayef.
Khashoggi is dangerous to the Saudis because he understands the language and audience of the Western countries, as well as the political realities in the Middle East. Even though the Justice and Development Party in Turkey is certainly not without flaws, it represents a coalescence of “Democracy” and Islamism that Khashoggi views as a realistic way forward for the Arab world and a model for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Arab Spring demonstrated to Khashoggi that this combination of economic populism, religious social conservatism, and the adoption of democratic language is the “sweet spot” in the politics of the Arab world. However, in politics, success is often more dangerous than failure.