The carnage in the Pittsburgh synagogue overshadowed the international scandal aroused by the murder of the well-known journalist and Saudi government critic, Jamal Khashoggi. Although there appears to be no connection between an anti-Semitic slaughter and the murder, President Trump is linked to both events. The Jewish community in Pittsburgh protested Trump’s visit. They view his rhetoric as racist. The fact that he defines himself as a “nationalist” foments division and hatred, encouraging murder.
Trump continues to be a welcome guest in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh. He is doing everything in his power to help his friend, the de facto Saudi leader and crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS), to obscure the latter’s direct involvement in Khashoggi’s death. Trump hastened to announce, “I believe him.” He also trusts Putin, Kim Jong Un, the Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte, and now the newly elected extreme right-wing president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro.
Many were surprised by the crude and amateurish way in which Khashoggi’s execution was carried out inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. As Trump’s protégé, the crown prince must have felt he had complete immunity. When the US president legitimizes lies as a weapon to attack his rivals, there is no reason why MBS’s fabrications should not be accepted too. MBS did in Istanbul what Trump does every day in Washington: eliminating political rivals through deception. This encourages attacks like the sending of bombs to Democrats and the massacre of Jews during prayer.
Khashoggi’s murder is a seminal event with the potential to shake up the Saudi royal family and threaten the throne of the supposedly enlightened crown prince. The mafia-style political hit has revealed his violent and murderous character. Is this the sort of man we can expect to lead Saudi Arabia into the 21st century by making far-reaching changes in the economy, social reforms, and the status of women?
The brutal war in Yemen (a humanitarian disaster), MBS’s detention of Lebanese President Saad Hariri, the arrest and extortion of MBS’s opponents within the royal family, barely raised the global eyebrow. Saudi Arabia’s enormous weapon procurements worldwide, especially from the United States, blinded many to his tyrannical behavior. However, Khashoggi’s murder has changed the equation.
Jamal Khashoggi was not some innocent journalist. An important political figure who once worked close to the royal court, he was an unofficial Saudi spokesperson while Prince Turki Al-Faisal headed the Saudi security services. Although Khashoggi used to talk about democracy, he stressed that the religious regime was the most suitable sort for conservative Saudi society. Khashoggi’s professional journalistic roots lie deep in Afghanistan, where he was close to Osama bin Laden when the latter was a favorite of President Ronald Reagan. However, following MBS’s palace coup, Khashoggi found himself, along with many in the royal court, cut off from power and a foe of the new ruler.
Following the rise of MBS, Khashoggi went into exile to conduct his struggle against the new regime. He chose the Washington Post as a platform from which to blast the new Saudi ruler. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and one of Donald Trump’s most vocal opponents, owns the Washington Post. Jamal Khashoggi served as a tool of the American liberal wing to attack American policy in the Middle East, especially Trump’s support of MBS.
Khashoggi acted as a journalist steeped in Saudi affairs, exposing the shady sides of the new ruler. This undoubtedly offended MBS, who from his first days has employed an aggressive public relations campaign and invested money in Silicon Valley’s high-tech giants. His goal has been to create a technological revolution for his ambitious plan, “Vision 2030,” which will end Saudi dependence on oil as a major source of income. The vision is to attract large foreign investments to the Saudi economy in renewable energy, education, health, culture, recreation, and tourism.
However, the kingdom’s illnesses obstruct these goals. First, Saudis have grown accustomed to a life of idleness. Ten million foreigners, mainly Pakistanis and Indians, do the hard work. Saudis live on oil revenues. Their daily needs are subsidized and they pay no taxes. This is how the regime maintains internal quiet. Second, Saudi Arabia’s judicial system is based on Islamic Sharia law.It has no modern legal apparatus that can protect the interests of foreign companies. Third, in a country where half its citizens, the women, are unemployed and oppressed, there is little chance of economic growth. MBS’s steps for women are still far from what is needed to enable their integration into society and the economy. Fourth, every word of criticism is prohibited. This stymies cultural and scientific innovation and is contrary to Islamic religious law. Therefore, the transition to innovation is almost impossible. Saudi Arabia will need a lot more than a charismatic leader to propel itself into the modern world.
The Saudis fully understand that the era of oil has passed. Renewable energy occupies a central place in the world’s leading economies, and large amounts of capital are being invested in the development of autonomous electric cars. This threatens the very essence of the conservative Saudi regime. That is why Khashoggi’s murder is not only the beginning of MBS’s end, but it also puts a finishing touch on attempts to combine a royal religious dictatorship with modern economics.
The murder also sends a clear message to Benjamin Netanyahu and all those in Israel who see the Sunni axis as a bulwark against Iran, thinking it relieves them of any need to reach peace with the Palestinians. Officially, Israel has refrained from condemning Khashoggi’s slaying. Supreme security interests motivate cooperation with Israel buffs like Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro, and Donald Trump. However, the Saudi regime is built on sand, and its approach to Israel stems from weakness, not power. A self-confident regime does not urgently dispatch fifteen security men on a private plane to liquidate a rogue journalist who has come to its consulate in Istanbul to get papers that will allow him to marry.
Saudi Arabia serves as Trump’s ticket to the Arab world. MBS initially agreed to broker the “deal of the century,” which will give Israel control over the West Bank in exchange for limited Palestinian autonomy. Saudi Arabia, heading the coalition of Sunni Arab states, remained silent when Trump transferred the American embassy to Jerusalem. In exchange, Israel kept as quiet as a tomb when Khashoggi disappeared. Saudi Arabia backed the military coup in Egypt and supported the dictatorship of General el-Sisi, who is also a close friend of Israel.The Saudis also appointed jihad militias in Syria that liquidated the democratic youth who led the revolution against the Assad regime. Saudi money has also helped spread fundamentalist Islamic Wahhabism by funding mosques in Israel and around the world.
Therefore, the decline of the Saudi regime represents, above all, an eclipse of fundamentalist Islam as we have known it since the 1980s. This decline paves the way for the democratic forces that led the Arab Spring to return to the stage and establish a democratic regime. Only such a revolutionary movement, rising from the rank and file, can usher the Arab world into the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is currently spreading throughout the globe.
– Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman