The media uproar over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi continues. Citing “people familiar with the matter,” The Washington Post has reported that the “CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination.” A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment in response to the Post’s inquiries.
President Donald Trump said he has spoken with CIA Director Gina Haspel and a full report is to be made public on Nov. 20.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert issued a statement on Nov. 17, noting: “Recent reports indicating that the U.S. government has made a final conclusion are inaccurate. There remain numerous unanswered questions with respect to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.”
Khashoggi was a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist. But as noted in an opinion piece in the Financial Times authored by Alexander Downer, the Australian diplomat who famously met with former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos, Khashoggi’s activities went beyond that of a simple journalist.
“My intelligence sources tell me he had worked as an intelligence agent for the Saudi intelligence service, GID, for around 20 years. At one point, he was sent by GID to Sudan to meet Osama bin Laden and to try to lure him away from terrorism. He failed,” Downer wrote.
“Khashoggi had always been close to the Muslim Brotherhood, the people who took over Egypt under Morsi following the so-called Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood is a hard-line Islamist organization dedicated to the introduction of Sharia and the creation of an Islamic caliphate.”
Khashoggi’s recent actions in Turkey placed him in direct conflict with the reformist actions undertaken by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, writes Downer:
“Khashoggi—a former Saudi intelligence agent, a man who was close to the Muslim Brotherhood and a sworn opponent of MBS’s reform program—was in the process of setting up a center to promote the ideology of the MB. He was setting it up in Turkey with Qatari money. The Saudis wanted to stop him. In September, they offered him $9 million to return to Saudi Arabia and to live there unhindered. They wanted him out of play. Khashoggi refused and the rest you know.
“This man wasn’t some Western-oriented liberal brutally murdered because of his passion for freedom. This man was a player.”
Worth noting is that Downer isn’t just an Australian diplomat. For 11 years, Downer served as Australia’s minister of foreign affairs. The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), a direct counterpart to the CIA, is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The director of ASIS reports directly to the minister of foreign affairs.
Downer personally oversaw all the intelligence operations of Australia for 11 years and is uniquely positioned to know of what he speaks of.
Realignment Over Extremism
The Middle East has been undergoing a dramatic realignment, dividing itself between those regimes that support extremism and those that oppose it. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a political and economic alliance of six countries in the Arabian Peninsula, has been at the forefront of these efforts against extremism.
Led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, most members of the GCC have chosen to stand against extremism. One exception is Qatar, which has quietly, yet consistently, chosen to align itself with extremists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar supported the extremist factions in Syria throughout the civil war. And Qatar has subtly aligned itself with Iran–in direct opposition to the Saudi/Egypt-led efforts to align Arab nations against the Iranian regime.
Qatar is currently under a blockade imposed from the other members of the GCC for its alignment with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is Khashoggi’s recent ties with Qatar that may have ultimately proved to be his undoing:
“The real crime was that Khashoggi was backed alone by Muslim Brotherhood supporters, namely the Qatari regime and the Turkish government,” Downer wrote. “A writer in Okaz, a daily in Jeddah, accused him of meeting with the Emir of Qatar at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York and of having ties to ‘regional and international intelligence services.’ If true it may have sealed his fate. Qatar is now the No. 1 enemy of the Saudi regime—arguably worse than Iran.”
Overlooked in the heated rhetoric is the larger issue of stability in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia plays a crucial role and is strategically important to maintaining a balance of power in the Middle East, and as Downer notes, the Persian Gulf.
On Nov. 17 at the 2018 Halifax International Security Forum, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, commented on the Saudis’ critical importance, noting: “Saudi Arabia has been an important partner to regional security in the past. I expect they will be in the future. … Their cooperation, their interoperability, in my judgment, is a good thing. Their cooperation, interoperability, capability if you will, would be a stabilizing force on the region. Has been a stabilizing force in the region.”
A continued weakening of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s newly established regime would prove destabilizing for the entire region. His removal could prove disastrous. But that hasn’t stopped some for calling for exactly this type of response.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sent a tweet on Nov. 17:
“Trump must accept (for once) his intelligence experts’ incontrovertible conclusion: Crown Prince MBS is culpable for Khashoggi’s monstrous murder. This brazen killing must have consequences—sanctions, prosecution, removal of MBS & others, not continued cover-up, enabled by Trump.”
Worth asking are two simple questions:
Why should we continue to insert ourselves into the internal politics of Saudi Arabia, and why would we be willing to risk the exacerbation of further instability in an already volatile region?
As correctly noted by Downer: “Abandoning the relationship with Saudi Arabia would further weaken the interests and influence of the Western powers in the Middle East. And if you think that doesn’t matter, you’re quite wrong. The Middle East is volatile enough without adding to that volatility by creating new power vacuums.”
Claims that the Saudis are fully responsible for Khashoggi’s death may be proven correct. Saudi Arabia is no standard-bearer of human rights. It is an authoritarian government, a monarchy run by the House of Saud. It might even be shown that bin Salman ordered the assassination.
It may be equally possible that an opposing faction within the Saudi government may have been responsible for Khashoggi’s murder in an effort to destabilize Salman’s rule.
There are also other players, such as Turkey and Iran, who stand to gain from a weakening or destabilizing of the U.S.–Saudi relationship.
No matter the outcome, to dictate our foreign policy and support for one of the primary stabilizing forces in a historically unstable region over the death of an individual with questionable ties seems a foolhardy venture.
As Downer notes: “You can in government be swept up in the prevailing media narrative, and if you design your foreign policy on that basis, you will achieve nothing. The wise government is the government which has a clear strategic direction and manages ephemeral events often driven by others with ulterior motives.”
Jeff Carlson is a CFA charterholder. He worked for 20 years as an analyst and portfolio manager in the high-yield bond market. He runs the website TheMarketsWork.com
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.