How the West offers Saudi impunity
If it were the plot of a spy novel, you’d think it implausible.
A man walks into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and is never seen again. His disappearance creates a geopolitical firestorm that sweeps around the globe, buffeting many of the world’s most powerful people and states, and even pricks the dormant consciences of global bankers. Unbelievable.
And yet it happened. At 1.14pm on October 2, Jamal Khashoggi entered that consulate for an appointment made a week earlier, to pick up some routine paperwork for his upcoming marriage, and has not been seen again.
In the weeks since, horrific allegations have emerged: that Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen living in exile as a permanent resident of the United States, a contributor to The Washington Post, was ushered into the consul-general’s office, grabbed and dragged to another room, tortured and killed. His body was then dismembered.
That is the claim from Turkish authorities. The Saudi government’s initial counterclaim was that Khashoggi got his paperwork and left, but there is a strong case to the contrary. No CCTV or other evidence shows that he left the consulate alive, but there is clear evidence of some disquieting arrivals.
A 15-member team flew in from Riyadh early that day. Most, if not all of them, came in on a chartered Gulfstream jet that landed at 3.28am. Others may have come on commercial flights. Reports of their movements vary, but it now has been clearly established, on the basis of evidence including passport scans and video images, that at least 11 of them had ties to Saudi security services. Five were members of the elite Royal Guard or employees at the Saudi royal palace, according to The Washington Post. The New York Times reported four of the men were members of the Saudi crown prince’s personal security detail.
There is video, too, of a convoy of cars with diplomatic plates leaving the consulate a little after 3pm to drive to the consul-general’s house. Staff at the residence, like those at the consulate, had been sent home. Again reports differ about their exact movements, but it appears the members of the “hit squad”, as Turkish authorities are now characterising them, flew out of Turkey aboard two chartered jets that night, back to Riyadh. The whereabouts of Khashoggi – or his remains – are a mystery.
The reports of his alleged killing have become more lurid by the day, citing Turkish sources saying he was beaten, his fingers were cut off, he was beheaded. There is even the suggestion that Khashoggi recorded his own demise on his Apple Watch, which was synched to his iPhone, which he left with his fiancée outside the consulate. More plausibly, the Turks had the place wired. In any case, the Turkish government claims to have audio – and maybe even video – of his torture and murder.
Reports on Wednesday, sourced to Turkish officials, say the tape records a man identified as Dr Salah al-Tubaigy, a forensic physician and “autopsy expert”, advising others including the consul to go listen to some music while he cut up the body. Others claimed al-Tubaigy himself put on headphones as he went about his task.
The Turkish government has begun a major investigation with the reluctant cooperation of the Saudis. But already the information leaking from Turkey, and the formidable investigative power of The Washington Post, The New York Times, Al Jazeera and others, indicates this was a targeted hit, directed from the Saudi government. Given the rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian power structure within the kingdom, the finger of blame inevitably points all the way up to Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler of his country.
“How could they have thought they could have a bunch of Saudis fly in, wander around the diplomatic quarter in Istanbul and leave unnoticed?” says Rodger Shanahan, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and an expert on the Middle East and Saudi affairs.
“You can’t just neutralise someone who is a writer for The Washington Post, one of the two most influential papers in the US. The Post is not going to let this one go. It just beggars belief that the crown prince’s people thought it was a good idea to get him.
“How on earth did they expect to get away with it?”
It’s an obvious question with, dare one suggest, an obvious answer: because they’ve got away with it before.
Fifteen of the 19 men involved in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the US were Saudi citizens. But America led its allies off to war in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which had been substantially inspired, funded and led by Saudis, including Osama bin Laden.
When Jemaah Islamiyah carried out the 2002 Bali bombings, the group was also allegedly receiving funds from Saudi backers through a charity called the Al-Haramain Foundation, according to an investigation by Foreign Correspondent. Over several decades, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been judged the world’s largest source of funds for international terrorism.
Shanahan notes there has been considerable progress by the Saudi regime in curtailing terror funding in recent years, and points to last month’s report by the Financial Action Task Force, the multinational body set up to monitor money laundering and terrorist financing.
“It found while they’ve improved, there’s still more work to be done,” he says.
Shanahan’s Lowy colleague and principle with the Nous Group, Anthony Bubalo, says it is not just about terrorist financing. He says the kingdom continues to export its Salafist “state creed of a conservative, literalist, intolerant form of Islam” around the world. Salafism is also used as the ideological basis of various terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Daesh.
One recent accounting of Saudi influence in Australia’s near neighbour Indonesia, by Jakarta-based journalist Krithika Varagur for the Pulitzer Center, totted up the evidence of Salafist activity since 1980 – 150 mosques and more than 100 boarding schools built and staffed with preachers and teachers, a huge free university in Jakarta, several Arabic language institutes, and thousands of scholarships for graduate study in Saudi Arabia. There are similar stories around the world.
More recently, Crown Prince bin Salman has got away with various outrageous acts: provoking a confrontation with neighbouring Qatar; briefly kidnapping the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri; imprisoning women’s and human rights activists; and dramatically escalating a diplomatic disagreement with Canada.
Yet Western nations, foremost among them the US, have always handled Saudi Arabia with kid gloves. In part this is because it is seen as an important regional counterweight to Iran. But more importantly, it is because the Saudis have an abundance of two vital assets: oil and money.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter, responsible for some 13 per cent of the market and historically the key player in setting global prices. Put bluntly, every time we in the West fill our cars with petrol, we are helping fund the Saudi regime and interests, which are often very different from ours. The kingdom is also a major importer of arms from Western companies, including Australian ones. The moral questions of what violence the West is prepared to accept to preserve lucrative trade deals and oil dependency have always been difficult.
An example: three years ago, the Saudi regime joined what was a civil war in neighbouring Yemen, for what most independent analysts see as no better reason than sectarian hostility. To date, some 14,000 people, a third of them civilians, have died as a direct result of the war, and more than 50,000 more have died as a result of ongoing famine. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, some 22.2 million Yemenis now need urgent humanitarian assistance, and millions have fled their homes and face disease and starvation. Saudi forces are using weaponry supplied by Western nations, notably the US and Britain. Other countries, including Spain, Norway and to an extent Germany, stopped selling armaments to Saudi Arabia on the basis of human rights violations in Yemen.
It is a sad reflection on the ethos of international commerce, and on the relative value we place on human life, that the apparent murder of one Washington Post writer, horrible as it may be, has got more news coverage than the plight of millions living in one of the poorest nations in the world.
As the storm around Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance built last week, US President Donald Trump was asked for his response.
“We don’t like it even a little bit,” he said. “But as to whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country, knowing they have four or five alternatives, two very good alternatives, that would not be acceptable to me.”
As is so often the case with Trump’s pronouncements, it was confusing and incorrect in a number of ways. First, the figure he quoted – relating to US armaments sales – was wildly inflated, a reference to some statements of intent by the Saudis. Only $4 billion of sales have actually been agreed. Second, says Rodger Shanahan, the Saudis couldn’t realistically go elsewhere for their equipment, for that would bring “huge compatibility issues” with their existing weaponry.
Third, Trump has said the kingdom would merit “severe punishment” if proved responsible for Khashoggi’s demise, but repeatedly prejudged the Saudi leadership as innocent of wrongdoing, offering the suggestion that “rogue” elements might be to blame. Others in Trump’s own party, including Senate leader Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio, have talked much tougher. If Trump didn’t act, said Rubio on CNN’s State of the Union program earlier this week, “Congress will – that I can tell you with 100 per cent certainty.”
The political leaders of other countries have been less forceful. In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany demanded a “credible investigation”, and “if relevant”, action to ensure those responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance “are held to account”. But they stopped short of foreshadowing any specific action on their part, such as blocking weapons sales. And they continued to ignore the incontrovertible evidence of crimes in Yemen.
In this country, shadow foreign minister Penny Wong simply endorsed the comments of the French, British and Germans. Foreign Minister Marise Payne provided a statement, saying she had met with the Saudi ambassador “to express Australia’s deep concerns about the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey”. She urged cooperation with the Turkish investigation.
The strongest expression of Australian political concern came from the Senate crossbench, in a motion jointly sponsored by the unlikely combination of the Australian Conservatives’ Cory Bernardi, Centre Alliance’s Rex Patrick and the Greens’ Peter Whish-Wilson. It noted “widespread reports that Turkish officials have evidence that Mr Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate”.
It called for Australia to withdraw from a major trade event to be hosted next week by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the 2018 Future Investment Initiative, also known as “Davos in the Desert”.
The motion was never put; the government vetoed it. Australia has not withdrawn from the Future Investment Initiative. A statement from Austrade says: “The Australian Government is expected to be represented at the Future Investment Initiative by Australia’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Austrade’s General Manager for the Middle East & Africa.”
A large and growing number of major international players, however, are pulling out of the event.
Last year, when the crown prince convened the first Future Investment meeting, global leaders of business, finance and government were falling over themselves to be there. Bin Salman was regarded generally favourably despite the ruthless way he had risen to power at only 33 years old, sidelining his royal rivals, jailing and dispossessing large numbers of people and allegedly rooting out entrenched corruption. He presented as a social and economic reformer, ready to invest the kingdom’s vast wealth and also to open up Saudi state enterprises, perhaps even privatising the state petroleum and gas company Saudi Aramco, which would have been the biggest privatisation in history.
A picture from last year’s event shows bin Salman seated on a plush leather couch between Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and Japan’s richest man, Masayoshi Son, chairman and chief executive of the investment conglomerate SoftBank.
The two men would later announce a visionary plan to invest $US200 billion in the world’s biggest solar power venture. Unlike the leaders of other fossil fuel-rich countries – notably Australia – the crown prince foresaw a renewable energy future, and determined the Saudi economy had to be completely remade.
Things look very different now. Lagarde won’t be sitting beside him this year. She’s out. So is Larry Fink, the chief executive of the world’s biggest fund manager, BlackRock. And Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of the huge private equity company Blackstone, and Jamie Dimon, of JP Morgan Chase, and Ford Motor’s Bill Ford, and a host of media executives, and many more. The list grows by the day, and with each shocking report about what happened inside the Istanbul consulate.
While government leaders sit on their hands, pleading due process, business leaders – even bankers – have exercised their consciences. As The New York Times’ influential business analyst Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in his “DealBook” column this week, it represents “the curious change the world has seen under a businessman president: America’s moral compass being set by the C-suite, rather than the Oval Office”.
Not entirely coincidentally, things are looking problematic for the Saudi kingdom, and for the crown prince. The visionary solar plan has been placed on indefinite hold. The Saudi sharemarket has taken a substantial hit. Curiously, though, despite semi-official threats made through state media that the world’s largest oil exporter could manipulate supply to double or even quadruple prices, traders seem to have shrugged it off. There has been little oil price movement – at least so far – perhaps indicating the country no longer scares the world like it used to.
Shanahan, Bubalo and other experts suggest the crown prince’s hold on power, concentrated to an unprecedented degree during the past couple of years, might be under threat.
“He has to be very careful, because in sidelining his opposition he’s made enemies, and you can bet your bottom dollar they will be working against him,” says Shanahan.
And what about Australia’s moral compass? Who is setting it, if not our political leaders?
The short answer is that we really don’t know.
In a statement to The Saturday Paper, Austrade gave no indication which private sector players were expected to be represented at next week’s Future Investment Initiative. It said only that the government had not funded them to attend.
What is understood, at least, is that Australia won’t be at this particular conference trying to sell armaments to the Saudis. But that’s not to say we aren’t doing it elsewhere.
Back in January, the government announced a $3.8 billion plan to bolster Australia’s troubled defence manufacturing industry, and make this country one of the world’s 10 defence exporters, on par with Britain and France, within 10 years.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – the Saudis’ partner in the war in Yemen – are two target markets.
In May, in Senate estimates, Peter Whish-Wilson tried to find out from Defence department officials what military equipment Australian was selling to the Saudis. He didn’t get far.
He managed to establish that 18 licences had been granted for defence exports from Australia to Saudi Arabia since 2016. But when he asked what “goods” were approved, he was brushed off.
“We don’t release the details of the goods that are approved for export,” said the official.
The senator tried again. “I can’t get an idea from you of what we export to these countries at the moment?” he asked, somewhat incredulously. “Is it drones, missiles? How will we ever find out?”
The answer came back: “Export permits are required for items on the Defence sensitive goods list. Anything on that list requires a permit, so that is what we are reporting against.”
Whish-Wilson did, however, establish that Australia was providing extensive training to the UAE forces. That’s about as specific as it got.
Should we not know more about the extent to which we are arming and training human rights abusers, and, on all the available evidence, murderers?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 20, 2018 as "Criminal kingdom". Subscribe here.