On the 2nd October 2018 Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, apparently seeking documents in relation to his recent divorce. He has not been seen since. The Saudis initially claimed he had left the consulate alive. In the face of a steady leak of material from the Turkish authorities they offered a variety of implausible explanations before conceding that he was in fact dead.
The whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body, whole, dismembered or dissolved in acid, has not been disclosed.
What is now acknowledged as a brutal murder of an exiled journalist was the basis of much outrage in the western media. In the catalogue of Saudi atrocities in recent years, the death of Khashoggi rates rather low, but that did not stop the barrage of criticism directed at Saudi Arabia in general and its effective political leader Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) in particular.
In recent days, more details have emerged about the surrounding circumstances of the murder, including the fact that the United Kingdom government knew in advance what the Saudis planned for Khashoggi but failed to warn him. They were unlikely to have been the only intelligence agency privy to Saudi plans.
His death therefore, and the furore surrounding it, has therefore to be seen as part of a wider geopolitical scenario. Khashoggi’s death, as unfortunate and as brutal as it was, can be seen as a pawn in the greater game.
To understand what that game was, it is necessary to go back to when MbS became the heir apparent and began his political program. There were token gestures that attracted western media attention, such as permitting women to drive. They were however, a smoke screen for much more significant geopolitical moves, none of which would have endeared him to the Americans and their allies.
The Saudi economy relies almost exclusively on the sale of oil, and that commodity is not only being depleted, it is also inextricably tied to the United States dollar. This has been the case since the early 1970s when the Nixon administration offered US ‘protection’ in exchange for all oil sales being denominated in US dollars.
For decades, that arrangement served the Saudis (and the Americans) very well. It’s brought untold riches to the kingdom, very little of which was wisely spent. Saudi Arabia became one of the greatest sponsors of terrorism throughout the world, supporting radical jihadist groups in Pakistan, Xinjiang province in China, Indonesia, the Philippines and many other places.
All of this was tolerated by the West and the United States in particular. There were a number of reasons for this. First, the use of jihadi terrorists served US foreign policy goals, undermining governments that were insufficiently obedient to American wishes.
Secondly, and of vast importance, it sustained the unique role of the dollar in international trade, in effect forcing other countries to subsidize the US economy that would otherwise have been exposed to the inevitable consequences of running huge internal and foreign trade deficits.
Thirdly, the Saudis were willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in buying US armaments. Why such a relatively small country would need to make such huge purchases has never been obvious. That they would buy what was obviously inferior military hardware that their own military forces were incapable of utilizing effectively was also apparent.
Saudi Arabia’s inability to militarily defeat Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, even with the help of US and UK armaments and intelligence, and the widespread use of foreign mercenaries to wage this war, has exposed their military limitations.
It is only recently that the appalling consequences of the war on the Yemeni people has intruded upon Western consciousness. Little or no attention has been given to the real reasons for the Western backed Saudi war on Yemen, and that is its geographical location.
Yemen is on one side of the Bab-el-Mandab Strait (“the gulf of tears in Arabic”) on the other side of which is Djibouti, home to China’s only foreign military base. The Bab-el-Mandab is one of only two maritime outlets for Saudi Arabia to the open sea and thence to the rich markets of Asia. The other outlet is the Strait of Hormuz, potentially controllable by Iran, the sworn enemy of both the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The war in Yemen is yet another proxy war fought for control of oil and in this case its distribution. That key strategic role that Yemen plays is the main reason the Western nations have largely ignored the plight of its citizens, and manifold breaches of international law. The sincerity of the new found western concern for Yemeni victims of their aggression is as believable as the faux outrage at Khashoggi’s murder.
There is some evidence that MbS was moving to establish a new course for Saudi Arabia. This was not the token gestures at internal reform or pseudo liberalization. It was rather an attempt to lessen the US stranglehold on the country. In particular this involved a series of moves toward closer cooperation with Russia and China. This manifested itself in various agreements including that Russia would build two nuclear reactors; co-operating on the world price for oil; and discussing the purchase by Saudi Arabia of the Russian S400 anti-ballistic missile system.
China was touted as a possible investor in the public float of the Saudi Oil Company, now in abeyance. Again, none of these moves would have endeared them to the United States for whom Saudi Arabia has been the golden honeypot for the sale of armaments without doubt inferior to their Russian counterparts.
Even more infuriating for the Americans, MbS was willing to not only direct a greater share of Saudi oil exports to China; he was willing to consider payment for oil in Yuan. This is a move that would accelerate the de-dollarization of world trade. There are plenty of motives for such a transition away from the dollar, as a rapidly growing number of nations are tired of the United States using the dollar as a weapon in its endless wars against all countries unwilling to comply with their demands.
The experience of Iraq, Libya and more recently Venezuela who similarly moved to eliminate the dollar from their oil transactions would be uppermost in the mind of MbS as he takes his tentative steps to follow a similar path.
Viewed in this context, the recent demands that “MbS must go” in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder, take on a different complexion. The furious reaction to that murder in some quarters really serves as a smoke screen to obscure the real objectives: to relentlessly crush any attempt to change the status quo that has served US interests at the expense of everyone else for far too long.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.