THE KHASHOGGI MURDER MYSTERY

Jamal Khashoggi is a man with an audience. Few of his fellow Saudis can match his 1.6 million Twitter followers. He’s a writer, journalist, and a one-time confidante of Saudi royals.


Then, presumably as part of a drive by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) to consolidate power before he becomes king, several of Khashoggi’s friends were arrested. When Khashoggi spoke publicly on his friends’ behalf, he lost his job with the kingdom’s al-Hayat newspaper and was reportedly advised to stop tweeting.

In June 2017, Khashoggi left Saudi Arabia for the United States, where he has since written for The Washington Post. Khashoggi has become an outspoken critic of the Saudi government and crown prince, both in print and on various television networks.

“I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison,” Khashoggi wrote for thePost in September 2017. Of Mohammad bin Salman, Khashoggi said, “Yes, he’s fulfilling a promise to purge radicalism in Saudi Arabia. But… he’s not allowing any form of expression, except expression that supports him.”

One week ago, Khashoggi and his fiancée, a Turkish citizen, went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul so that Khashoggi could fill out paperwork that would allow them to marry. Khashoggi, reassured by friends that Saudi officials would not arrest him, entered the building. His fiancée waited outside. Khashoggi never came out.

Turkish investigators say they believe Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate, that the murder was planned in advance, and that Saudis smuggled his body from the building. The Saudi government denies the charge. No evidence has yet been publicly presented, but the astonishing accusation that Saudis have murdered a journalist in the heart of Istanbul has made headlines around the world.

The bigger picture: Beyond speculation about Khashoggi’s fate is a stark reminder of the shifting geopolitics of the Middle East. Relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia are already strained, in part because Turkey has maintained constructive relations with Iran, a bitter Saudi rival that MBS wants to isolate. Turkey also has warm relations with Qatar, a country the Saudis have blockaded. Turkey’s own political system represents a brand of political Islam that Saudis see as part of an Arab Spring-related threat to the region.

How can Turkey respond to this shocking event? In the past, Turkey might have appealed for help to the United States, its NATO ally. To put it politely, this is an awkward moment for such an appeal. President Donald Trump has warm relations with the future Saudi king, and just two months ago Trump took the extraordinary step of imposing sanctions on Turkey in response to the detention of a US preacher still held inside that country.

Adding to Turkey’s isolation is the grim irony that this country is hardly a friend to reporters. In fact, Turkey is “the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders, a rights organization.

In short, there’s just not much Turkey can do about this.

The Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace launched in 2018 with the commitment of signatories to stand up to cyber threats like election interference, attacks on critical infrastructure, and supply chain vulnerabilities. Last week, on the first anniversary of the call, the number of signatories has nearly tripled to more than 1,000 and now includes 74 nations; more than 350 international, civil society and public sector organizations; and more than 600 private sector entities. These commitments to the Paris Call from around the world demonstrate a widespread, global, multi-stakeholder consensus about acceptable behavior in cyberspace.

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Forty years ago, Islamic extremists angry at the Saudi government's experiments with social liberalization laid siege to the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

To regain control, the House of Saud had to strike a deal with key conservative clerics whose blessing they needed in order to send troops into the mosque . The monarchy agreed to roll back all liberalization at home, and pledged to actively fund the spread of conservative wahhabi Islamic teachings around the globe.

To understand better how the repercussions of those choices are still with us today, we put some questions to Yaroslav Trofimov, chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and author of the magnificently written 2007 book The Siege of Mecca.

His answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Why is it important to mark the 40th anniversary of the siege?

YT: We are at a historic moment once again in Saudi Arabia, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman openly talking about how he wants to rectify the errors of 1979 and bring the country into a more socially liberal system. And he has done a lot already, allowing women to drive and lifting many other restrictions, allowing pop concerts, cinemas, tourism — all those things that remained banned in Saudi Arabia because of the 1979 deal between the House of Saud and the clerics. We are obviously talking about social as opposed to political liberalization now, as the kingdom's political system remains as oppressive as ever.

How did the event change Saudi Arabia's society?

YT: The 1979 events gave the upper hand to religious conservatives for nearly four decades, freezing the social reforms and keeping the kingdom's population under control of the religious establishment and its Vice and Virtue Police. That had repercussions in every sector, most notably education, which created a new generation steeped in ultra-conservative Islamic values. It is only after the 2001 attacks [of 9/11] that this began to change, with the most dramatic erosion of the clerics' power happening since 2016.

How did the siege affect Riyadh's foreign policy?

YT: The new pact between the clerics and the House of Saud also meant that the Saudi oil money was to be used to spread its ultra-conservative version of Islam around the world, at the expense of more moderate and open interpretations. That changed the discourse in Islamic countries all over, and indirectly fostered the rise of extremism.

The siege came a few months after the Iranian revolution, how did that play into things?

YT: There was a lot of confusion at first, as the US blamed Iran for the Mecca events and Iran blamed the US. But, all in all, the siege taught the Saudi royal family that the best way to confront Iran's aspirations to lead the pan-Islamic revolution was to stoke Sunni sectarianism that dismissed Iranians as not really Muslim because of their Shiite faith.

That became a point of convergence between the supporters of Juhayman [al-Oteibi, leader of the siege], the Saudi clerics, and the Saudi government. And we see the repercussions of that rise of Sunni-Shiite sectarianism across the region today.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says he is trying to move Saudi Arabia back onto the pre-1979 course of social liberalization. Is that possible?

YT: Well, empirically it is happening. I refer you to the piece I just wrote from Saudi Arabia for the WSJ. Times are changing and the influence of social media and the internet in general on young Saudis is massive, opening up their minds. Also, hundreds of thousands of young Saudis have traveled to the US to study on King Abdullah scholarships in the past decade, bringing back fresh ideas.

So far the backlash to the changes in the kingdom has been very limited. The question is: is Prince Mohammed dragging a reluctant kingdom into modernity, or was the society changed and reachable all along? We'll see what happens in the coming years.

In many ways the Siege of Mecca is the story of unintended consequences: of leaders tolerating (and even supported) extremists who ended up turning on their masters. Is there a comparable situation today that worries you?

YT: Well, history is full of unintended consequences. Did Putin expect Ukraine to harden as a nation-state and decisively turn toward the West as a result of his [invasion of the country] in 2014? My guess is no: he expected it to crumble.

On the question of jihadists, I think countries have learned since 2001 and since the rise of Islamic State that extremist proxies are dangerous. How long will that lesson hold?

Time will tell.