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Part of the problem in understanding contemporary Saudi affairs is that foreign observers (the U.S. included) start off by thinking they are dealing with a country evolving from a centuries-old tribally and family-based society to a more technology-influenced modern-day nation. Western outsiders see what they want to and that which is convenient. They firmly believe that allowing female members of the Royal family and their female friends to drive automobiles is a major step forward in modernization – indeed even westernization. The fact is that such steps stem from the veneer of western socio-cultural development perceived by the limited number of foreign “high society” encountered by Royal females and their advantaged commoner counterparts in their heavily chaperoned travels abroad. Even the heavily censored TV films play a part in what is an insidious but limited influence. Saudi traditional society overall remains otherwise rigidly unaffected despite these very artificial indications otherwise.
The Khashoggi family, along with others such as the bin Laden family construction group, fall into the category of advantaged commoners. These favored clans have been allowed to prosper under the rule of the al Saud. The fact is that the origin of the Khashoggi family is Turkey and the vestige of the Ottoman Empire that lasted to 1922 and once ruled the Arabian Peninsula. Jamal’s grandfather was a doctor to the founder of today’s dynasty, Abdul Azziz bin Saud. It was this connection that provided the succeeding Khashoggi’s with a place of importance in the Kingdom. Oddly enough it is Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s (MBS) similar powerful stature at six foot four that has reminded the faithful of the similar-sized exalted Abdul Azziz. This may seem excessively mystical to an outsider, but to a Saudi it’s a sign from on high!
Jamal Khashoggi also had benefited from his uncle Adnan’s connection with the late King Fahd as the latter’s trusted contact with international arms dealers – most particularly the American firm, Lockheed Aircraft. Jamal’s acceptance by MBS already had been strained from time to time, but more and more the successfully self-minted journalist’s determination to play a protestant role in Saudi affairs brought Khashoggi into serious conflict with the new Crown Prince. This state of affairs was manageable until reports came in from Saudi intelligence that Jamal was having covert meetings with their Turkish counterparts that were not cleared by Saudi authorities. This was not an issue of ancient prerogative but a modern application of counter intelligence. Ambitious elements of MBS’s entourage sought to take advantage of this situation thinking that it would curry favor with their boss.
While this may seem a convenient explanation, it is a part of the problem in dealing generally with Saudi leadership – and that’s the way Riyadh likes things to be. The Saudis enjoy the protection that is afforded the institution of the Royal Family by the confusion caused by outsiders’ inability to cope with the complexity of Saudi family and governmental thought process. The Arabic language also provides in itself considerable ambiguity that is easily exploited when necessary or simply convenient.
Apparently, Jamal Khashoggi understood well the utility of being able to think and act in Saudi Arabian and Western (usually American) modes. The trouble was that he was oblivious to the fact that in spite of his innate intellect and acquired breadth of understanding of both Saudi and Western worlds, he was an amateur in the field of intelligence and covert relations. His clandestine relationship with Turkish officials came to the attention of elements of Saudi intelligence operating as their American and British instructors had trained them over the years. It was nothing arcane or mysteriously traditional, just good contemporary tradecraft.
The problem this situation posed was that Khashoggi’s maneuverings were not discovered until far too late. He had met and became engaged to a Turkish woman and planned to travel to Istanbul to complete legal documentation enabling him to marry. At this point MBS was advised that Jamal Khashoggi was “in touch” with Turkish official intel individuals. The Crown Prince said something along the lines of “I am fed up with Khashoggi.” That’s a statement in Arabic that can mean practically anything. Unfortunately, MBS’s uttering in annoyance was taken in the traditional manner and what was deemed his will was turned into action as the remark was passed down the line. At about the third level down the entire matter took on the character of a high-priority operation with everybody wanting to get into the act.
The Crown Prince is far too sophisticated, and even Westernized, to have consciously ordered the action that occurred. There were so many other ways to take care of Jamal. Certainly killing him with fifteen guys in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul was not one of them. Obviously if anything was to be done, it should not have been done in Turkey with whom the Saudis were and are in a complex political relationship. Certainly, a well thought out assassination (if that was necessary) could be arranged in some less security-controlled environment than Istanbul.
And that is where the matter stands. It’s not for show the killers are to be executed. It is because they proceeded without direct authorization and intelligent planning. If that direction would have been given, it would have been given in a more subtle manner such as poison at a diplomatic dinner or hooked up to a car battery that would have stopped his heart. The local 911 could have been called and confirmed the death by heart attack. That is so much easier and far more consistent with Arab traditional modus operandi. The message would have been well understood by others. As it is, the Royal Family has been embarrassed and that should never happen. However, as they say in Saudi Arabia, “inch ‘Allah”!