Saudi King Gets a Pass on Khashoggi. Why?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One of the central figures in the drama over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has remained an invisible man. Global attention has focused on the role played by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oct. 2 killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But another figure deserves equal billing: the prince’s father, King Salman.
The crown prince is often referred to as the “de facto ruler” of Saudi Arabia. But that’s not what he really is. The king has virtually total power. He has apparently delegated a lot of administrative authority to his son, enough to make “day-to-day ruler” a reasonable description of the younger man’s government role. But the king remains the ultimate authority.
It’s significant, then, that King Salman either goes unmentioned by public figures demanding accountability for the killing, or is specifically exonerated. Writing in the Washington Post, for example, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that “We know the order to kill Khashoggi came from the highest levels of the Saudi government” but added, “I do not believe for a second that King Salman, the custodian of the holy mosques, ordered the hit on Khashoggi.”
From this, Erdogan reasoned, “I have no reason to believe that his murder reflected Saudi Arabia’s official policy,” and that there was therefore no reason for a rift in Turkish-Saudi relations.
Exonerating the king thus reflects Turkey’s impulse to inflict as much damage on a regional rival as possible without precipitating a geopolitical meltdown.
Even in his statement on Tuesday defending strong U.S.-Saudi ties, President Donald Trump acknowledged, “It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump didn’t say anything like that about King Salman.
There are defensible reasons for this. The king is elderly and is assumed not to bother himself with day-to-day governance. He lacks the reputation for rashness and adventurism that his son has acquired.
Yet if blame for the killing and a subsequent cover-up goes all the way to the top in Saudi Arabia, it cannot stop at the crown prince. And while there is no evidence indicating that the king was involved, he must certainly have played a major role in shaping the Saudi response, which is almost universally regarded as inadequate.
Several factors are at play. First, by distinguishing between the king and the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s interlocutors preserve their ability to accuse parts of the Saudi government of culpability while sustaining the relationship with the state. It’s a pragmatic fiction.
Second, the narrative props up a simplistic fantasy of two Saudi Arabias, each personified by one of the Saudi royals. The king represents the “good” Saudi Arabia of caution and stability. The crown prince represents the “bad” Saudi Arabia of recklessness and ruthlessness.
In truth, the old Saudi Arabia personified by the king had many flaws, not least of them the propagation of a dogmatic version of Sunni Islam that informed extremists. And the prince’s new Saudi Arabia has much to recommend it, including advances in women’s rights, a retreat from religious extremism, and economic modernization.
The distinction is mythological. Saudi Arabia has changed, but it hasn’t gone from good to bad or bad to good. It remains an essential but problematic U.S. ally.
Washington and Riyadh need their vexed partnership, which survived the 1973 oil embargo, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 2003 Iraq war and other strains. But there’s no need for fake nostalgia or fantasies about “good” versus “bad” leaders of the same Saudi government.
Those who want Washington to back away from Riyadh — including Erdogan, much of the U.S. media and many in Congress — find the dual-leader fable to be convenient. But it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and it won’t produce an intelligent policy response.
The U.S. is going to have to deal with Saudi Arabia for what it is. In that sense, Trump’s willingness to overlook the Khashoggi killing in the name of sustaining the alliance has more integrity despite its flaws than the mythmaking that defends the Saudi king while attacking the crown prince.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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