I knew just what Jamal Khashoggi’s murder really meant in the context of the Middle East last week when I realised just who I’d have to call to explain it to me. Whom would I telephone to learn what was going on? Why, of course, I’d call Jamal Khashoggi. And that’s why his murder is so important. Because he was, as he knew, a lone and important Arab journalist who did not listen – not any more — to His Master’s Voice. And that, of course, was his problem.
This disgusting, dangerous, frightening, dirty murder – and don’t tell me a man of 60 who dies in a “fistfight” with 15 men isn’t murder – shows not just the Saudi government up for what it is, but it shows us up for what we are, too. How come we keep falling in love with Arab states – Israel does this, too – and then cry out with shock when they turn out to be extremely unpleasant and very violent?
To answer this question, there are already several clues. Trump’s initial reaction that the Saudi story was “credible” – when it clearly was not – was a start. Then the murder became “the worst cover-up in history”. It was the quality of the murder that was troubling him, you see. These chaps didn’t know how to cover their tracks. He had already blurted out that he didn’t want to give up US arms sales to Saudi Arabia. We had our own beloved prime minister referring to Jamal’s gruesome murder as a “killing”, rather than a murder. Then – and this was indicative because it was not contradicted – we had Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, referring to the murder as a “huge and grave mistake”. “MISTAKE”. Let me repeat that. MISTAKE!
Al-Jubier, the former Saudi ambassador in Washington who was once reported to have himself been the intended victim of a would-be murderer in the US, was lecturing the press a year ago on how in its war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia “abides by international humanitarian law”. But not, it seems, by international diplomatic law. But hold on a minute. Al-Jubier – and I used to know him quite well many years ago – is a very eloquent and well-educated man. His English is flawless. When he used the word “mistake”, it was not a mistake. What he meant – what I think he meant – was that Jamal Khashoggi should not have been killed.
Jamal should not have become involved in that famous “fistfight”. Something went wrong. Perhaps the killers misunderstood their task. Rendition wasn’t supposed to end in murder. Perhaps a friendly chat got out of hand. They didn’t know their own strength. Before they knew it, Jamal, well, he walked into their fist. Or the fist of one of them. They made a “mistake”. And for that reason, we can forget about the 15 man hit team, not to mention Jamal’s lookalike who strides out the back of the consulate – apparently in Jamal’s own clothes, for heaven’s sakes – and then later apparently tosses the same shirt, trousers and jacket into the garbage. And forget about the forensic scientist and the mysterious black van. And the initial two-week denial – which was self-evidently a bald and total lie from the first day. And this is a MISTAKE?
We shouldn’t, of course, have been surprised. The “mistake” was this week downgraded to a regrettable “incident” by a Saudi minister at the international business conference in Riyadh where the large number of western companies have downgraded their representation from CEOs to smaller CEOs. Mohammed bin Salman – did you see him beaming at his guests and joshing with King Abdullah of Jordan? – is squeaky clean, we have to believe. Untouchable. Innocent. As pure as the driven snow etc. But after his vile war in Yemen, his arrest of the most important princes and lucrative nabobs in Riyadh, his kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister and his assault on Qatar – demanding the closure of Al-Jazeera (which, of course, is much enjoying the current farrago) – should we be surprised if Mohammed bin Salman has got himself mixed up in, well, something that got out of hand, even if we’re told he didn’t at the time know anything had got out of hand or that anything had happened? A mistake, for example. If the Yemen war can get out of hand – can even turn out to be a mistake – well, what can you expect will happen when a bunch of thugs are flown into Istanbul in Saudi jets? I did, by the way, love the touch that they flew in to separate Istanbul airports. That really put the Turks off the scent, didn’t it? Not perhaps the worst cover-up in history. Certainly a mistake.
And you’d have to note, wouldn’t you, the repulsive and hypocritical outpouring of anger by our brave and moral western leaders at Jamal’s murder. They’ve been tut-tutting for two years about the Yemen war, making excuses for it, selling arms for it and avoiding personal responsibility for it, and it’s quite obvious that they care far, far more about Jamal’s death than about the 5,000 civilians who have been killed in the Yemeni conflict. What is a child’s death worth or the killing of guests at a wedding party compared to Jamal’s murder? I guess that we can always find excuses for Yemeni casualties – “collateral damage”, “human shields”, “full investigation”, etc – but Jamal’s murder was just too obvious, too packed with lies, too thug-like. We – rather like the Crown Prince, May His Name Be Praised – ran out of excuses. Heavens above, what would we do if we discovered that the infamous knife – always supposing there was a knife and that Jamal was dismembered – was made in Sheffield?
Naturally, we all hope Jamal was not dismembered. If Adel al-Jubier doesn’t know and if the cupboard-opening Saudi consul doesn’t know – and since he’s safely back in Riyadh, we aren’t going to find out – and if Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t know – which he can’t know, can he, because he knows nothing about this atrocity – then we can all hope that Jamal was given a solemn and dignified Muslim burial with all the correct prayers said for his soul and his body buried – secretly, of course – shrouded and on its right side and in the direction of Mecca, the Holy city of which Mohammed bin Salman’s father, the King, is officially the Protector.
This will not have been easy to accomplish if Jamal was indeed chopped up by our favourite forensic scientist and taken to the consul’s home or a forest – the Turkish version – for a secret burial. But then again, maybe, on the way to the forest – if it was a forest – the burial party thought that, given the piety of their country, let alone their faith, he really should be given a Muslim funeral. By that stage, however, they would have realised that they might have committed a “grave and terrible mistake”. Under Islamic law, a mutilated body must be sewn up before being placed in a shroud. Did they sew Jamal up? And put him in a shroud?
Of course, it sticks in our craw that the man who has been leaking every detail of Jamal’s appalling death – the Sultan Erdogan himself has imprisoned up to 245 journalists and between 50,000 and 60,000 political prisoners – should be reaping the benefits of this ghoulish and terrible story. Well, at least he doesn’t chop them all up, claim they walked out of prison almost as soon as they were incarcerated and then admit that he doesn’t know where their bodies are.
And yes, this murder is going to affect Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Syria – and Israel, which was sighing with affection for Mohammed bin Salman – and, of course, Trump, but let’s go back to that first question. How come the “good guys” turn out to be bad guys? How come those nice, moderate leaders who guarantee the “stability” of the Middle East – and naturally I’m including the Saudis in this – turn out to be so horrible. Not the people. I’m talking about the autocrats and dictators and kings and princes and venal tyrants to whom we smile and grovel and fawn and kneel.
We now all love the “moderate” and “stabilising” regime of President/Field Marshal Sisi of Egypt. But who now remembers the young Italian Cambridge University student Giulio Regeni, tortured with knives for a week and murdered — only two years ago – and dumped on a Cairo roadside? The Italians suspected Sisi’s cops did the deed – there was even a case of a CCTV camera not working. How these things always seem to happen at the wrong (right) moment. Egyptians know the name of the chief suspect among the cops. Perish the thought, said the regime. So Rome and Cairo have made up and Italian tourists arriving in Egypt are not bothered about the 40,000 or 50,000 or 60,000 political prisoners rotting in Egypt’s jails. Regeni’s body had stab wounds. Funny how sharp-edged instruments seem to find favour with Arab regimes.
Who recalls how we first loved Muammar Al-Gaddafi when he deposed King Idris of Libya and then hated him when he helped the IRA and then loved him when he gave up the nuclear facilities he didn’t understand and was kissed by Tony Blair, after which we helped in the rendition of Gaddafi’s opponents so they could be tortured in the Libyan dictator’s death prisons. Let us not even mention Saddam Hussein, whom we supported in his war with Iran – even when he used chemical weapons – until he invaded Kuwait and then supposedly possessed weapons of mass destruction and was eventually overthrown by us and executed.
Then there’s Bashar al-Assad, feted in Paris on Bastille Day, the face of modern Syria whose father massacred up to 20,000 in the 1982 Hama uprising, and then accused of the death of more than half a million in a Syrian civil war in which countless thousands were killed by both the regime and by the Islamists armed and paid for by – yes – Saudi Arabia. If the Assad regime was synonymous with hanging, ISIS brought the crucifixion posts to Syria. And the beheading blocks. Sharp-edged instruments again. Of course, the Saudis deny all this. For it’s as unthinkable for Saudis to support a death cult as it is unthinkable for the same government to send a death squad to Istanbul.
They would never commit such a terrorist act – or mistake – any more than they would execute their enemies en masse in Saudi Arabia itself. After all, the chopping off of the head of the Saudi Shia religious leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr (and 46 others) occurred before Mohammed Bin Salman was Crown Prince. So did the British Aerospace scandal of millions in backhanders over the al-Yamamah weapons deal – which the British police investigated until the cops’ questions were closed down when Tony Blair knelt to Saudi pressure and put an end to such an inconvenient enquiry.
Yup, it’s about money and wealth and power – and because all these folk were kept in power by the folly and lies and corruption and hypocrisy of our own political leaders. Let our satraps get away with Croesus-like corruption and mass murder, and what do you expect? We made them, sustained them, supported them, kissed them, loved them. What’s an invasion or two between friends? Isn’t Saudi Arabia vital to our UK security – that was supposedly one of the reasons why we dropped the al-Yamamah investigation – and we’ll hear it again from Saudi Arabia’s lackeys in Britain in the coming days and weeks. What would happen if we Brits didn’t get all this information about Islamist terror from the Saudis? Well, let’s hope they wouldn’t send 15 chaps to Heathrow, including a forensic scientist.
Jamal Khashoggi knew all about power and danger. Almost a quarter of a century ago, he turned up at my hotel in Khartoum and drove me into the Sudanese desert to meet Osama bin Laden – whom he met during the Afghan-Soviet war. “He has never met a western reporter before,” he said as we sped past ancient Sudanese pyramids. “This will be interesting.” Khashoggi was indulging in applied psychology. How would bin Laden respond to an infidel? Though woe betide anyone who thought that Khashoggi’s round spectacles and roguish sense of humour was a sign of spiritual laxity. He called bin Laden “Sheikh Osama”. I first met Khashoggi in 1990 and last spoke to him on the phone from Beirut to Washington a couple of months ago.
Even when he was an adviser to the Royal Family and an editor and journalist in Saudi Arabia, he spoke about the “facts of life” as he would call them. Talking privately, he would dismiss all rumours of a palace revolution in the Kingdom. But he always talked about the cynicism and venality of the western powers who propped up the Arab regimes and then destroyed them if they did not obey, of how Arabs in general were not a free people. Which is true. And maybe what he would have repeated to me if I could have talked to him before that “mistake” occurred in Istanbul. Dead men, however, don’t talk. And the Saudis must be mighty pleased about that.