Realists point out that Khashoggi’s alive dismemberment and killing is still just one dead journalist; that such events are not exceptional – and that states seldom change policy for the sake of one death, however gruesome its commission. All true. But it is also true that an isolated event can catch ‘the moment’; Can strike just at the instant when ‘inflection’ is poised to turn; When a single additional, undifferentiated, snowflake can touch off a huge slide whose mass is entirely disproportionate to the single grain that triggers it. Was Khashoggi’s killing just such a trigger? Quite possibly yes – because there are several unstable accumulations of political mass in the region where even a small event might set off a significant slide. These dynamics constitute a complex nexus of shifting dynamics.
Khashoggi’s literal bodily dismemberment is somehow also an allegory for the larger regional dynamics grinding away. Khashoggi – an early member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and considered as their icon – was, we are told, literally, gruesomely dismembered. Symbolically, his end will be viewed – in the region, at least – as the still live body of the MB, spread prone on the desk, being diced into bits by Saudi apparatchiks – recalling almost precisely the Gulf’s campaign to crush the Brotherhood, and to “extinguish” it from the region.
The symbolism is all the more poignant as Khashoggi symbolised too, in a personal way, that ambiguous tentacle stretching between bin Laden’s Al-Qae’da and the Muslim Brotherhood – although later Khashoggi was to reserve his estimation of bin Laden. (Khashoggi joined the MB at about the same time as bin Laden; traveled extensively with the al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan; and wrote one of the first profiles of him for a Saudi magazine in 1988 (see Peter Bergen’s The Osama bin Laden I Know).
The primary ‘point of inflection’ on which the world has rightly seized, however, is the potential that President Trump will be grudgingly cornered, by the slow drip, drip, feed of the evidence – into a redress of the US–Saudi relationship for the first time since 1948. And, as part of this, reluctantly cornered to concede that Mohammed bin Salman is not the reliable foundation from which the main elements of US foreign policy all branch out: Iran regime change, putting a lid on the price of oil as Iran falls under further sanctions, selling US weapons, and handing Israel its ‘deal of the century’). Of course, no one knows what might come next in Saudi Arabia, were MbS to be sidelined as heir presumptive. There are rumblings from within the al-Saud family clearly audible.
Will Trump actually make such determination? He will do everything to avoid it. However, a critical ‘overhang’ of US Congressional and Beltway opinion has been souring on the Saudi relationship for a long while: incrementally, since 9/11, and the catastrophe that is Yemen, has added mass to that overhang of discontent and unease about the merit of the US’ tight hug of MbS.
Few in DC, believe that Trump’s claim of a $110 billion potential in arms sales is anything other than bluster: a dressing up of existing sales, already in the pipeline from Obama days, puffed out with a few (non-binding) letters of intent. And the US today is no longer dependent on a secure supply of Saudi oil. Inevitably then, the downside to the relationship is becoming starker (and darker). And with the public plainly more cognizant of the horrors that constitutes Wahhabi brutal jihadism (i.e. in Syria), as well as the slow dawning that ‘reform’ in Saudi is not what reform connotes, elsewhere. Is Khashoggi’s murder then that last grain that will set off the precipitous slide? If Senator Lindsay Graham can be considered the ‘canary in the mineshaft’, then yes: “This guy [MbS], has got to go”, Graham insists.
And here the other symbolism arising from Khashoggi’s killing points to a different ‘point of inflection’: His dismemberment occurred in Turkey, just as he was about to marry into the AKP Establishment (his fiancée’s uncle was an AKP founder). Khashoggi was also a friend of President Erdogan. This grisly event has allowed Erdogan to leverage Turkey’s situation immeasurably (especially when it occurred in parallel to the Turkish court’s release of US Pastor Brunson). Trump, greeting Brunson at the White House, admitted to a Damascene conversion: he now viewed Turkey very favourably, the President claimed. Erdogan will leverage this advantage fully, to prise the US away from the Kurds in eastern Syria, and to strengthen his hand in playing Washington off, against Moscow.
Erdogan plainly has loftier ambitions. He is using this Khashoggi leverage now to pitch for the leadership of the Islamic world, no less – hoping to snatch it away from Saudi Arabia. After the defeat of the Wahhabis in Syria, Erdogan senses that Sunni Islam is on the cusp: He is brazenly using Ottomanesque language and imagery to assert this prior claim; and op-ed pieces in the Turkish press are adding to this:the demand for Saudi Arabia to give up its ‘Wahhabi’ hegemony over the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.
This represents another key potential tipping point: Saudi Arabia’s position is slipping: It has been always a marginal state politically, but the kingdom compensated for this, through cheque-book politics, and its credentialisation as Keeper of the Holy Sites.
But with the excesses of ISIS alienating Americans and Europeans, the Gulf States turned to a narrative of ‘calling for moderation’ and of endorsing ‘war on theocracy’, rather than risk outright condemnation of jihadi violence: A stance unacceptable to their own ‘Puritan’ clerics. (The point here, was that whilst the ‘War on Theocracy’ could be understood as an explicit commitment to fighting ISIS, rhetorically, it more conveniently served to equate Iran, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood as being indistinguishable from ISIS). This is the highly contrived narrative into which Trump unreservedly has bought.
The ‘moderation’ meme however, compelled a concerted, if confused, attempt at the distancing of Gulf monarchies from ‘Islamic Statehood’. But, as noted by Ahmad Dailami, the monarchical nationalism that MbS used to distance the kingdom from its own Islamic puritanism was neither replaced with an alternative creed, nor with true secularism.
Khashoggi is hailed in the West as a liberal, favouring democratic reform, but in fact, he was a staunch supporter of the monarchical system (of which MbS is the effective head). He contended however, that all these monarchies were “reformable”. Only the secular republics, he suggested (such as Iraq, Syria and Libya) were unreformable, and required to be overthrown. Where he fell out with MbS therefore, was that he favoured not a turn to secularism or western-style ‘liberalism’, but a reforming Islamisation of Arab politics along Muslim Brotherhood lines – just like Erdogan, in fact.
So, here is the second potential tipping point: Will Erdogan’s so-far successful leveraging of the Khashoggi murder also succeed in drawing in its wake, an inversion of US support away from the Gulf back toward the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood model? The US has oscillated (often quite violently), over the years, between supporting the MB as the catalyst of change in the ME, only to swing back to the Saudi intelligence service’s ability to field ‘kick-ass’ jihadists as the better recipé for quick regime change.
Trump hinted at just such a possible shift with his favourable comments on Turkey when receiving Pastor Brunson: "This is a splendid step to have a major and special kind of relationship with Turkey. Our thoughts on Turkey today are much different than what yesterday. I guess we have a chance to be much closer with Turkey, to have much, much closer relations. Establishing good ties with President Erdoğan is gaining significance."
And what constitutes a possible third latent point of inflection? Well, Israel of course. The former US Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, writes:
“The grisly hit-job on Khashoggi has implications far beyond its exposure of the Saudi Crown Prince as brutal and reckless. In Jerusalem and D.C., they’re mourning their whole strategic concept for the Mideast – not least, for countering Iran…The shocking brutality of Jamal Khashoggi’s abduction and murder by Saudi security forces cannot be papered over, no matter how implausibly it is dressed up, as an interrogation gone wrong or the work of rogue actors.
But its implications go deeper than the tragedy visited upon Khashoggi’s family and fiancée. It raises fundamental questions for the United States and Israel about their whole strategic concept in the Middle East…the Khashoggi murder, beyond obliterating red lines of immorality, also points to the fundamental unreliability of Saudi Arabia under MBS as a strategic partner. What happened in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul echoes words once used to describe Napoleon’s elimination of an opponent: "It’s worse than a crime. It’s a mistake." One might add, a strategic mistake”.
In fact, it opens a potential inflection point of great consequence. Israel has either lost, or had its air superiority over Syria and the northern arc of the Middle East, greatly circumscribed. Israel depended on this air superiority. But in the wake of Russia’s loss of an Ilyushin Il-20 aircraft and its 15 airmen over Syria on 17 September, Russia has installed a formidable air and electronic defence umbrella across much of the northern tier of the Middle East.
Consequently, the strategic balance in the Middle East hangs precariously in the balance. The pendulum of power has swung northwards: “It won’t be easy for Israel to navigate these waters, as the Washington foreign policy establishment has quickly splintered into anti-Iran and anti-Saudi camps … For Israelis, [it may be that] the biggest blow in the fallout of Khashoggi’s murder [is that] MBS, in his obsession with silencing his critics, has actually undermined the attempt to build an international consensus to pressure Iran”, US Ambassador Shapiro concludes. Israel now has a number of alternatives: press Trump to intervene with Putin in order to have him ‘walk-back’ the S-300 SAM deployment in Syria; challenge the Russian air defences directly, or, acquiesce to a new regional strategic balance.
How Trump finally decides to handle the Khashoggi killing – to fudge it, or not – may well determine which of these options Israel – and the region as a whole – ultimately will elect to follow.