It’s a short and well-trod path from ambitious reformer to despot. Sometimes it’s even the same road.
Generations of visionaries and ideologues thought they could remake the world. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman isn’t really one of them. He stands in the company of those with more modest goals, modernizing their own countries. And he doesn’t appear to be killing Saudi citizens in bunches. All the same, he’d recognize — and probably agree with — the sentiment often attributed to Josef Stalin: If you want to make an omelet, you need to break some eggs.
Jamal Khashoggi apparently was one such egg.
For all the murky details, what happened to Khashoggi – interpreter of the Kingdom of Saud for Western minds, Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident – seems pretty clear. Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain a document he needed to marry a Turkish woman. He didn’t come out alive, or even in one piece. Lurid details leaked by Turkish officials indicate a Saudi hit squad killed and dismembered him, and then hastily left the country.Saudi Arabia claims Khashoggi left the consulate, and that it has no idea what happened to him. As criticism mounts, it has become belligerent, insisting Sunday that “as glorious and steadfast as ever,” it would resist political pressure.
Let’s grant that the Saudis may have come for Khashoggi, but didn’t intend to kill him, or at least not in such a grisly fashion. All the same, what does this episode say about Saudi Arabia and the impetuous 33-year-old crown prince? Most experts agree that even if the goal was only to kidnap or intimidate Khashoggi, it couldn’t have happened without the approval of MBS, as he is widely known.
Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to crack down on hardline clerics, rein in religious police, allow women to drive, reopen entertainment venues such as movie theaters and make the economy less dependent on oil are all welcome – and long overdue. It benefits much of the world if Saudi Arabia stops using its vast wealth to export extremist religious ideas, and if well-educated young Saudis can find jobs and a more agreeable lifestyle at home.
But if you thought he intended to reshape the kingdom into anything other than a somewhat different kind of repressive autocracy, you should forget about it.
If MBS has a model, it’s probably prosperous and authoritarian China – which currently is detaining and striving to re-educate hundreds of thousands of its citizens (ironically in this case, Muslims). The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is in some ways a lot like the House of Saud, an autocracy in which caution and consensus traditionally have prevailed.
Bin Salman – like Chinese President Xi Jinping – has managed to concentrate vast power in his hands. While Xi is an experienced apparatchik who has experienced the highs and lows of party politics; the Saudi crown prince is an impatient young man who has never been told no.
As he tries to modernize the Saudi lifestyle and diversify the economy, he has blown up Saudi Arabia’s consensus-driven decision-making. He has detained rivals and dissidents alike. Critical voices have gone silent. And people like Khashoggi, who initially expressed support for Bin Salman’s reforms, became more critical and felt it was safer to leave the country.
Don’t look to President Trump to stop him. There are those in his administration who are uncomfortable with Bin Salman’s rash decision-making, particularly with his war in neighboring Yemen, which is responsible for what the U.N. calls the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Trump told “60 Minutes” that if Saudi Arabia is shown to responsible for Khashoggi’s death, there will be “severe punishment.”
But where others see blatant human rights abuses, Trump sees jobs resulting from arms sales and the linchpin of his Middle East policy, built around an alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia to confront Iran. Proof of Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s death is likely to remain in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder-in-chief probably prefers not to see.
Bin Salman faces more resistance in Congress, particularly if Democrats take over the House of Representatives and its appropriations authority. Even before Khashoggi disappeared, many in Congress were pressing the administration to stop supporting the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Now, voices as diverse as Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, are calling on Trump to halt arms sales. He may have spent recent months cozying up to Trump, but Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says there will be “hell to pay” if the Saudis killed Khashoggi.Bin Salman may be too inexperienced to fully appreciate the trouble he’s in. Even so, as long as Trump is on his side, he may not care. But anger in Washington adds to the disquiet among the princes Bin Salman elbowed aside on his way to the top. They haven’t gone away. Sometime in the future, the Khashoggi case might turn out to be a key bit of evidence that MBS was far too rash to run the country.