If Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), really did sent a hit team to Turkey to murder dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, what will happen next? Perhaps history can help us here.
A little over two centuries ago, in 1804, the armies of the French Revolution had won all the key battles and the wars seemed to be over. The rest of Europe had decided in 1801 that it would have to live with the French Revolution and made peace with Napoleon. Everything was going so well – and then he made a little mistake.
Many members of the French nobility had gone into exile and fought against the armies of the Revolution, and the Duke of Enghien was one of them. In 1804 he was living across the Rhine river on German territory.
Napoleon heard an (untrue) report that Enghien was part of a conspiracy to assassinate him, and sent a hit team – sorry, a cavalry squadron – across the Rhine to kidnap him. They brought him back to Paris, gave him a perfunctory military trial and shot him. After that things did not go well for Napoleon.
The idea that Napoleon would violate foreign territory in peacetime in order to murder an opponent was so horrifying, so repellent that opinion turned against peace with France everywhere. As his own chief of police, Joseph Fouché, said, “It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.”
By the end of the year every major power in Europe was back at war with Napoleon. After a decade of war he was defeated at Waterloo and sent into exile on St. Helena for the rest of his life. So is something like that going to happen to MbS too?
Nobody’s going to invade Saudi Arabia, of course. (Not even Iran, despite MbS’s paranoia on the subject.) But will they stop investing in the country, stop selling it weapons and buying its oil, maybe even slap trade embargoes on it.
Since it seems almost certain that Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudi government – Turkish government officials have even told journalists off the record that they have audio and partial video recordings of Khashoggi’s interrogation, torture and killing – all of Saudi Arabia’s ‘friends’ and trading partners have some choices to make.
Donald Trump immediately rose to the occasion, declaring that he would be “very upset and angry” if Saudi Arabia was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, and that there would be “severe punishment” for the crime.
He even boasted that Saudi Arabia “would not last two weeks” without American military support. Presumably Trump was talking about the survival of the Saudi regime, not the country’s independence, but he was still wrong. He is as prone to overestimate his power as MbS himself.
The Saudis struck right back, saying that “The kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats or attempts to undermine it whether through threats to impose economic sanctions or the use of political pressure. The kingdom also affirms that it will respond to any (punitive) action with a bigger one.”
But Trump was only bluffing. He really had no intention of cancelling the US$ 110 billion worth of contracts that Saudi Arabia has signed to buy American-made weapons, because “we'd be punishing ourselves if we did that. If they don't buy it from us, they're going to buy it from Russia or China... ...”
People have been turning a blind eye to the weekly hundreds of civilian deaths caused by Saudi bombing in Yemen for three years now. Why would they respond any differently to murder of one pesky Saudi journalist in Istanbul, even if he did write for the Washington Post?
But if the foreigners will not or cannot bring Mohammed bin Salman down, his own family (all 7.000 princes, or however many there are now) probably will. It is a family business, and his amateurish strategies, his impulsiveness and his regular resort to violence are ruining the firm’s already not very good name.
He rose rapidly out of the multitudinous ranks of anonymous princes through the favour of his failing father, King Salman, but he could fall as fast as he rose. Killing Khashoggi was definitely a blunder.