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The Saudi government is tying itself up in knots

April Brady / POMED [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has triggered a power struggle and the future of the ailing Saudi king and his overambitious son could be at stake.

Saudi Arabia is scrambling to create new narratives on the sensational assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist, murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

There is circumstantial evidence that the murder was allegedly carried out by a hit team sent from Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi’s critical writings had become a thorn in the side of Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), the favourite son of king Salman bin Abdul Aziz.

Khashoggi was particularly critical of MBS’s conduct of the brutal war in Yemen.

The Saudi government is tying itself up in knots. The latest disclosure by the top Saudi prosecutor points the finger at two high-level Saudi security officials who, apparently, botched up the operation, purportedly intended to either convince Khashoggi to return home or kidnap him. The Saudi public prosecutor, in a news conference, acknowledged for the first time that the hit team of Saudi agents were supposed to kidnap Khashoggi and bring him back alive. The hit team ended up murdering their target.

Eleven security officials are in custody. The prosecutor also said that he was seeking the death penalty for five of them. The decision to murder Khashoggi was, apparently, taken by one of the senior security officials in the hit team. The Saudi prosecutor has stated that MBS had no knowledge of the operation. The Saudi foreign minister has also waded into the narrative by saying that the killing was a “mistake”.

The Saudis have been changing their narrative, which began with denying any involvement with the murder. This new narrative is yet another attempt to wriggle out of any direct responsibility and a last-ditch attempt to insulate MBS from any culpability in this crime. The new disclosures seek to pass on the blame to security officials who now become scapegoats.

Turkey is not relenting and wants an international investigation, to get to the bottom of this crime, adding to the pressure on the Saudi regime. The US administration has denounced the “abhorrent killing” and announced sanctions against 17 Saudi officials who were allegedly part of the hit team. The US administration has demanded that those responsible must face the consequences.

Meanwhile, the Saudi regime is mending fences with disgruntled and powerful members of the royal family. One such member is Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, youngest of the so-called Sudairi seven brothers and a sibling of king Salman. Ahmed, a known opponent of MBS, has returned home from exile in London. Whether this in an indication of impending changes in the power structure in Riyadh is a matter of speculation. Many royal family members have not accepted MBS as the crown prince because he leapfrogged over many senior and capable family members.

The Saudi royal family is secretive about its internal affairs and any power struggle among its members. Khashoggi’s murder has triggered a power struggle and the future of the ailing Saudi king and his overambitious son MBS could be at stake.

Earlier, the Saudi royal family had functioned in a collegial manner, accommodating senior members in the power hierarchy. With the arrival of MBS, this consensual approach was abandoned, leaving many estranged. Hundreds of senior princes and other dissenters remain imprisoned on the orders of MBS.

While the murder may have weakened MBS, he still has powerful external backers. Among them are Israel, which has talked of stability in Saudi Arabia. For Israel, the real enemy is Iran. The other pressing problem is the Palestinian issue. On both counts, Israel has received support from MBS. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise visit to Oman is certainly linked to this issue.

Regime stability in Saudi Arabia will depend on the outcome of the prosecution of the accused senior security officials. If some of them are found guilty and sentenced to death, it would undermine the whole security structure that protects important members of the royal family. If death sentences are announced by a court, then there is a way of commuting them under Sharia law — payment of ‘diyah’ or blood money to the family of the deceased. Though acceptance of diyah is optional, Khashoggi’s family may be coerced into accepting this option. The final outcome is anyone’s guess.

This commentary originally appeared in Hindustan Times.

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty (ORF)
29 November 2018

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