Khashoggi’s Disappearance Belies Saudi Reform Narrative

Jamal Khashoggi (Al Jazeera)

by Emile Nakhleh

The disappearance and possible murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi lay bare the “reform” lies that Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) has been spouting about his so-called opening up of Saudi society. His thuggish attitude and vicious actions toward peaceful Saudi dissidents and human rights advocates, inside and outside Saudi Arabia, show beyond a shadow of a doubt his tribal vendetta against all those who dare to question his domestic and foreign policies.

Many have written in the past year that the severity of MbS’s reaction to dissidents and their families for merely speaking out can be attributed to his unfortunately accurate perception that he has President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner “in his pocket.” At the very least, the Saudi de facto ruler believes that Trump has jettisoned human rights from his foreign-policy calculations and has become more drawn to the rule of strongmen and autocrats, including MbS and his counterparts in neighboring Arab countries. Accordingly, MbS is convinced that his bloody suppression of dissidents, including loyal critics like Jamal Khashoggi, will not earn him any “yellow” flags from Trump and his administration.

If Khashoggi’s death inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey is confirmed, it would be a signal that MbS is no more than a tribal upstart bent on revenge against anyone—royal or commoner—who dares to question his inherited right to rule and his freedom to do what he wants, legal or illegal, inside Saudi Arabia and in the neighborhood.

Regional and Global Reach

The Saudi security services’ long reach against Saudi dissidents in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, and other Arab countries is facilitated by those countries’ support of MbS’s repressive policies and because of the economic benefits they draw from the Saudi largesse. What is truly disturbing is that his brazen attacks on Saudi dissidents in Turkey, the United States, Canada, Europe, and other Western countries through kidnappings, threats, and abuse of dissidents’ relatives have largely been met with silence and a few perfunctory and hypocritical statements.

MbS’s message to neighboring, strongman-ruled states is that repression of dissent, including assassination, is permissible, that regional human rights organizations are powerless to stop it, and that Western countries, including the United States, are more concerned with their economic interests, including arms sales, than human rights. The clear message from MbS to other autocrats is simple: your people don’t count when it comes to your hold on power.

According to President Trump’s recent statement, Washington has demanded that Saudi Arabia come clean on Jamal Khashoggi. Will the Trump administration use its diplomatic and intelligence capabilities to examine the evidence that Turkey has already produced about the high-level Saudi involvement in the kidnapping and apparent murder of Khashoggi? If Turkish intelligence reports are correct regarding the arrival in Turkey of a large Saudi hit team under diplomatic cover just prior to Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate and the team’s departure from Turkey a few hours after his mysterious disappearance, will President Trump hold MbS accountable for this crime? Western media must not relent in their coverage until the truth comes out.

Congress should pass legislation against the Saudi regime to highlight the culpability of MbS in this crime and to halt all military sales to the country and military and intelligence assistance to MbS’s ill-conceived war in Yemen.

Khashoggi’s Political Odyssey

Sadly, Jamal Khashoggi is not the first or the last to suffer the wrath of MbS and his security services. The global media reaction to the apparent kidnapping and presumed murder of Khashoggi is a tribute to his reputation. The expansion of critical Western media coverage of the Saudi regime is arguably caused by the fact that Jamal Khashoggi is known as a moderate, cool-headed, reasonable, loyal dissident, and not a firebrand bent on destroying the Al Saud regime.

Unlike other critics of the regime, Khashoggi has worked closely with Al Saud in different capacities over the years, as a journalist, a defender, a spokesman, an apologist, the editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned Arab News, a consultant, and of course a critic. He had no objections to the Al Saud rule, and in fact, initially supported MbS’s “reform” agenda. He started voicing his gentle criticism of the regime years back, mostly presented as advice from a loyal subject rather than a rebel on behalf of democracy and human rights.

As MbS began to consolidate his power within the family and in the country through repressive measures against his presumed enemies, including members of the ruling family and peaceful protesters—men and women—Khashoggi became more vocal in his criticism. In response of MbS’s dislike of such criticism, Khashoggi decided for his own safety to go into self-exile and write for foreign publications, including The Washington Post.

As an academic and later as a government official, I spoke to him several times over the years. Outsiders interested in Saudi Arabia often found him informed and lucid about domestic Saudi affairs. His engaging personality appealed to Western audiences. He always expressed his views about his country, both positively and negatively, without rancor but with a touch of sorrow about recent developments in the country.

He felt that, under MbS, Saudi Arabia was drifting toward dictatorship and that the ties between the ruler and Saudi citizens were rapidly eroding, which concerned him very much and which he wrote about. Khashoggi began to believe that the “reform” that MbS was touting in his interviews with selected Western media outlets was a cover for his growing authoritarian rule. MbS viewed Khashoggi’s criticisms as personal attacks on him because they began to make a dent in his self-promoting image as the enlightened reformer of Saudi Arabia.

If Turkish reports are proven correct, then Khashoggi’s murder could not have been carried out without MbS’s approval and prior knowledge. This action will confirm Mohammad bin Salman’s image not as an enlightened reformer but as a destructive force against his own people. Will the Trump administration continue to treat him as the darling of Arabia?

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. “The clear message from MbS to other autocrats is simple: your people don’t count when it comes to your hold on power.” This is badly misunderstood by the author. This man comes from a deeply conservative tribal society where hereditary authority is essential and at the core of the society. While he has to earn survival, he inherits the right to rule, not by popular vote, but by internal consensus of the ruling family elite. The Saudis are following the Chinese model for modernizing their economy and society without changing the political monopoly system. That Mr. Khashoggi wanted voting and democracy was a direct and frankly, mortal threat to the monarchy. Where today is the Chinese head of Interpol?

  2. Mr Nakhleh, you know better than that! Saudi Arabia has been a dictatorship since its inception when the Great Britain named it the “House of Saud” and planted King Abdelaziz as its dictator in early 1900’s. So the dictatorship is genetic and it’s passed on to their next generation!

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