The tragedy of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi should serve as a wake-up call to Saudi Arabia to hold an honest evaluation of how the ambitious and vital reform agenda has unfolded over the past two years to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated, argues Nadim Shehadi
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, under the youthful leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been pushing for radical changes that would put the system on a sustainable path in line with the aspirations of a new generation of Saudis.
Good intentions notwithstanding, the latest tragic events surrounding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the enormous damage this has done to the Kingdom’s reputation should not be seen in isolation. Khashoggi’s killing is one of a series of blunders that follow a now familiar pattern: bold ideas based on a grand vision but followed by clumsy implementation or undermined by rash additional measures that backfire and worsen the situation. The mistakes that occur between ambition and implementation often delight the Kingdom’s enemies and dismay, embarrass and frustrate those who support the new vision and would like it to succeed.
“The assassination of Khashoggi is much more than an isolated incident or a botched rendition by rogue elements.”
The assassination of Khashoggi is much more than an isolated incident or a botched rendition by rogue elements; there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that shoots itself in the foot after every commendable move. One example includes the huge anti-terrorism conference in May 2017 that brought together some 50 Islamic nations in a coalition to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) and confront Iran. It also saw the inauguration of cyber war centers staffed by hundreds of employees and coincided with US President Donald Trump’s first overseas visit. Yet, barely three days later, long before the gains of the conference could materialize, a crisis with Qatar erupted with the unseemly sight of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council bickering among themselves and accusing each other of supporting terrorism – while the Iranians smiled with glee from the sidelines.
While the GCC squabbled, the US-led assaults against ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa were underway with the Americans fighting alongside Iran’s proxy forces in what was essentially an alliance, albeit an uncomfortable one, and one, also, that excluded Washington’s Gulf allies.
Similarly, the immense investment conference in October 2017, which called for foreign direct investment in the Kingdom’s half-trillion-dollar high-tech Neom project, was followed soon after by the arrests of some 200 princes and businessmen who were confined to the Ritz Carlton in what many viewed as a multi-billion-dollar shakedown under the cover of an anti-corruption drive. The result of the arrests was to undermine investor confidence in the short-term and annul the achievements of the investment conference.
“The decision to repeal the ban on women drivers was a welcome move.”
Then, in early November 2017, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was summoned to Riyadh and forced to resign, having irritated the Saudi leadership over his inability to confront the powerful Hezbollah and tell Iran to cease meddling in Lebanon and Yemen. Hariri’s humiliation was on public display, amid rumors of rough treatment meted out to the prime minister of a sovereign nation. Adding to the humiliation was an official appearing on the most popular political show on Lebanese TV to hurl insults and threaten to expel Lebanese citizens and block all money transfers from the Kingdom. The result? A backlash from the Kingdom’s supporters in Lebanon who shared their leader’s humiliation which had the unintended consequence of delivering a huge boost to Hezbollah.
The decision to repeal the ban on women drivers was a welcome move. It reversed a policy that had no basis in religion and presented a new image of Saudi women, one of the civil activists achieving their goals as productive members of society. But just before the driving ban was lifted, those activists that had earned international admiration were arrested and detained on charges of allegedly spying for foreign governments, the evidence for which has yet to be presented.
Even the crisis with Canada was wholly unnecessary and was caused by an overreaction to what was after all merely a critical tweet by a diplomat on the arrests of the women activists. The victims in the diplomatic spat were the many Saudi students who were withdrawn from Canadian schools and colleges.
Historically, this may be a symptom of a culture of defeat. Saudi Arabia’s agenda in recent years has met with defeat in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and most importantly in Washington where the Kingdom has suffered from a poor image exacerbated by an openly hostile media and a dismissive administration under US President Barack Obama. The reaction to this hostility may have been a decision to fight all the Kingdom’s battles at the same time, both those internal and external.
The Saudi leadership is traditionally known for its wisdom and sobriety, prioritizing stability and generously engaging with its rivals and supporting its allies. All those familiar with the modus operandi of the Saudi establishment agree that the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi is totally out of character. It is as much a shock to the world as it is to Saudis themselves. The only positive outcome to this tragedy would be a thoughtful and honest evaluation of the last two years’ gains and losses with the goal of identifying the sources and reasons of the mistakes while ensuring that the vital reform process continues along as smooth a path as possible.
Nadim Shehadi is an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House