MBS: Lord of the Flies

Still from The Dissident. (Cinetic Media)

“What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?”

― William Golding, Lord of the Flies

To hear the MSM tell it, the evidence against Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) for his involvement in the murder of Washington Post Arab Affairs columnst Jamal Khoshoggi amounts to a prosecutorial slam dunk. A year before the killing he was overheard saying that he would put a bullet in the writer if he didn’t return to Sudia Arabia and end his criticism of the royals. More recently, in a separate CNN piece, we read: ‘Top Secret’ Saudi documents show Khashoggi assassins used company seized by Saudi crown prince. This latter article alludes to a lawsuit filed by Saad Aljabri, a Saudi ex-intelligence officer living in Canada, who alleges that the planes used by the hit squad that took out Khashoggi in Istanbul were also later dispatched to Canada to kill him.

So, MBS is implicated both before and after the murder of Khashoggi: There is the threat; the means; the motive; and, the discovery of the ‘get away’ vehicles. On top of this is a CIA “assessment” that MBS was responsible for the murder; that is is “inconceivable” that he didn’t know and, indeed, order the hit. But this is still largely circumstantial. What’s missing is the habeas corpus — Khoshoggi’s body. People accused of murder, without a body, have been convicted before, and that’s what happened in Saudi Arabia, when the regime there owned that a murder had taken place and convicted several patsies for Khoshoggi’s death. But MBS still walks on water.

Al-Jazeera has produced a brief animated re-enactment of the murder demonstrates how the event probably went down. It’s the kind of scenario you’d see displayed to a court during a trial. It’s worth a watch. Here it is.

While President Donald Trump defended MSB, essentially drawing attention to the circumstantial nature of the allegation by saying, “I guess we’ll never know.” He didn’t want to create friction, he said, that was such an important business partner. Who would we sell our weapons to? (A ‘conspiracy theorist’ might wonder whether Trump knew of the intended murder ahead of time.) Once a U.S. intelligence report was declassified and released, many pundits and observers expected Biden to keep to his campaign promise to pursue punitive actions against MBS. As Politico put it, “Biden promised to punish Saudi leaders responsible for Khashoggi’s murder and to reframe the U.S.-Saudi relationship.” But he didn’t. Almost certainly for the same reasons that Trump didn’t bother. Money doesn’t talk, it swears, quoth the Bard from Duluth.

But what’s described above, and depicted in the animation, are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg regarding the intrigue involved in the crime. The 2020 documentary The Dissident (Apple, Vudu), directed by Brian Fogle (Icarus), tells a far more intriguing and darkly nestled ideation at work than we are made privy to in the MSM, which is so careful to protects us from truths that might upset us. They’re so good that way.

The Dissident largely revolves around the doings of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi exile living in Montreal. He has been a vocal critic of the Saudi royals and ruling policies. He befriended Jamal Khoshoggi, and Abdulaziz came to rely on Khoshoggi’s advice and “wisdom” in dealing with the Saudis back home. The way Abdulaziz describes it, Saudis nationals are virtually controlled and controlled virtually by Twitter feeds. The viewer is advised that 20% of Americans have Twitter accounts — and we all know what damage Trump brought to the table with his Twitter message fussilades. But in SA, the Twitter membership is 80%.

Last year, another film about the deleterious effects of social media, The Social Dilemma, convincingly revealed the danger of mass manipulation by the growth of hive-mindedness and its algorithmic control by nefarious state and commercial interests. Along similar lines, Twitter in SA is seen as a tool of the freedom of expression, folks constantly interpenetrating each other’s psyches with raw, unprocessed “thinking.” But this freedom, Abdulaziz tells us, is actually deviously controlled by cyber armies within SA, referred to as The Flies, who massage Tweet Twits, and re-shape their responses, and when necessary, create a “swarm” to attack adversaries and dissidents. And, he says, MBS is the Lord of the Flies.

These Flies are sent by the thousands to drown out voices that question the government, Abdulaziz tells us. They are like hitmen sent out to enforce the fascist heeling out of freedom of expression, and behind it, the seat of all freedom — the wilds of critical and creative thinking, lurking in our minds, like sleeper cells, needing only to be activated by Woke moments. Ouch. (Reminded me of the Glenn Greenwald “white” blood cells that swarm any criticism of the master.)

In Montreal, Abdulaziz was having none of that. He decided to start his own dissident swarm, called The Bees. But instead of coming at people like trolling regime liars, Abdulaziz tells us that the Bees would descend on folks with the Truth. (Cue the harps.) When MBS caught on, he sent a team of interlocutors, including Abdulaziz’s brother, to talk him into coming home, where he could be a Star and have his own TV program that led Saudi youths down the path of frisky rectitude. Be a dissonante instead of a dissident. Apparently, he didn’t know what to do, so he contacted Khoshoggi, who advised him not to return. After Abdulaziz told the nice men that he would remain in Montreal, his brother and 23 associates were arrested on trumped up charges to apply pressure.

What made Khoshoggi a dissident is standard procedure in America, complaining about government, and doing activist things to disrupt fascist movements online. Such dissidence goes all the way back to the British experience for Americans. Past Paul Revere and later the tea partiers. Past Daniel Defoe’s being put in the stocks for mocking the government. Further back to the Magna Carta. But, you could see how the authoritarian regime in SA would see such activism from Khoshoggi (and Abdulaziz) as sedition, punishable by death. Nevertheless, until MBS, SA seemed content to lure “exiles” back home to deal with them, rather than draw attention to their tyranny by murdering away from home. Both Abdulaziz were asked to return home. MBS appears set to arrogantly chase after dissidents overseas, first with his Flies, then, if deemed necessary, to send hit squads.

Meanwhile, Khoshoggi, who had himself gone into soft exile, after being fired from a series of TV and journalism gigs because of his outspoken criticism of the royals, leaving behind a loving, supportive family. According to Souad Mekhennet and Greg Miller of WaPo, “Khashoggi had previously been banned from writing or even tweeting, but fear that worse could be in store had prompted him to seek refuge in the United States.” Khoshoggi came from Insider stock; he was the nephew of the high-profile Saudi Arabian arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi (which doesn’t get any air time). Khoshoggi got a job at the Post, owned by Jeff Bezos, and was probably a great asset, helping other journos there develop an inside stream into the thinking of the royals. Apparently, according to Mekhennet and Miller, he may also have been an agent provocateur for Saudi regional adversary Qatar, given talking points and subjects to write about.

The Dissident then describes how Abdulaziz’s phone was breached by Pegasus, an Israeli-developed eavesdropping tool that can surreptitiously access any mobile phone in the world. But the Saudis were behind it. And, says Abdulaziz, by accessing his phone and computers, they were able to capture all the emails and correspondence of people who had been in touch with him in support of his dissident activities — including Jamal Khoshoggi. This was a crucial development, says Abdulaziz, as it moved Khashoggi from the tolerable/manageable journalist camp to a posture of dissident, making him a “criminal” enemy of the State. And thus, the title of the movie.

It seems inevitable from this breach that Khosshogi’s days are numbered. Again, Abdulaziz tells us the proverbial final nail in his coffin must have come when Khoshoggi started up his own TV program that openly criticized the policies of MBS and his royal regime. The second half of the film transitions to a soft portrait of Hatice Cengiz, Khoshoggi’s fiance. She seems the weeping Madonna to Jesus, deeply ululating in grief for the crucifixion of the martyr of freedom. Of course, this is how she is presented. At one point, in the film’s transition to hagiography, Cengiz even gets a nice warm hug from a ‘distraught’ Jeff Bezos who is brought on to give a short speech at a remembrance ceremony.

This transition is, of course, necessary. We need to understand the humanity of the man, and his friends and family, to complete the gravity of his loss — not only to the cause of freedom, but to the tender hearts of those left behind. Cengiz, is always dignified and brave, although I thought it strange that after Bezos’s speech she so warmly embraced him. He was just a rich guy; his words were no more expensive than the fellow who came before, and his sympathy seemed tied to Khoshoggi’s employment at WaPo. We are also shown images of a wonderful-looking family Khoshoggi left behind in SA, a tightly-framed set of smiles and warmth. Well, why speak badly of the discombobulated dead.

The Dissident is largely an earnest-seeming straightforward story of how one man, exiled to America, fell in love with its style of freedom, which at its core is a freedom of expression that underlies everything from art to finance, and decided to take the extra step of going from reporting about Saudi political deficits and royal misdeeds to openly calling for change, as his colleagues at home were doing — and being rounded up for doing so. In short, Khosshoggi’s American ‘radicalization’ (from an SA POV) might have been better delineated.

But there are some bits about the film that struck me as curious — at least — such as the use of ex-CIA chief John Brennan being beamed in to, at that time, suggest that there was no way MBS wouldn’t have been responsible for the journalist’s death. Given that he was CIA bureau chief in SA when 9/11 occurred, you’d have expected his message to be more pointed, rather than just wheeled in for “authority.” But Brennan’s is a muted presence, he doesn’t say much of value, and someone more believable than a serial liar to provide a government would have been preferred.

Similarly, the designated WaPo point-driver was David Ignatius, who has, on more than one occasion, been the stenographer for many Intelligence Community leaks, especially the CIA, with whom he worked over the years to report the Company’s foreign exploits, favorably. I even had questions about Omar in the end. I wondered how he got so scot-free; the Khoshoggi planes that carried the murderers away from Istanbul and later used to, allegedly, go after another target in Canada, weren’t going after Abdulaziz (see graph 1). And a little more explanation of how Khoshoggi’s family left behind in SA felt about him getting remarried to Cengiz might have been appropriate, an especially unsettling wonderment when the closing credits indicate that his SA family accepted blood money for his loss from the royals.

In a newsletter piece this past February, The Human Rights Foundation, whose stated mission is to fight global authoritarianism, lauded the release of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s “assessment” that MBS was solely responsible for planning and execution of the Saudi dissident. HRF president Thor Halvorssen said of the assessments conclusion,

MBS has proven that he is unfit to represent the Kingdom on the global stage and we applaud the Biden administration for choosing to engage directly with King Salman. Now the United States and the European Union must urgently place sanctions on MBS himself, along with those within his direct chain-of-command who were involved in the murder.

They clearly expected a more rigid response than they got from the Biden administration, which, like the Trump administration before, chose not to rock the boat of their lucrative partnership, especially at a time when things may light up with Iran, SA’s Shia nemesis.

Certainly it’s a relationship fraught with problems. In a recent interview with Krithika Varagur, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and author of The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project, she discussed the tender US relationship with SA, saying, in part, that they have been crucial partners for a long time, especially in ‘controlling the world’ by means of oil, but also with in the so-called War on Terror, and in operations to quell the quagmire of Middle East politics, with no sign of that working relationship diminishing any time soon.

But, after noting the contradictions of the theocratic nation, a kind of power-sharing apparatus between the royals who run the day-to-day affairs of government, and ultra-conservative religious sects that go back centuries, she notes, “had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” perhaps her most salient point had to do with rise of MBS. She notes,

MBS is likely to become the King in the not too distant future, and unlike his father, who was already old when he ascended to the throne, stands to be in power for a very long time. So unilaterally censuring him, given the prospects of his leadership in the region and our deeply enmeshed interests, remains difficult. Any US President crafting policy towards Saudi Arabia is not starting with a fresh slate; they are inheriting a complex relationship that dates back to FDR.

Plus, we’ve presumably learned that reactionary responses to Arabian doings always seem to have blowback attached.

So, it’s slowly, slowly, for the Americans. For the Saudis, it’s probably the same as it ever was. I recall the PBS Frontline documentary, Black Money, a couple of decades back, when the US and Britain were embroiled in a bribery scandal in SA over arms dealings (see Khoshoggi reference above), especially BAE. Prince Bindar bin Sultan was repeatedly asked to explain the massive bribery payments to the Arabs. He responded succinctly, “So what.” Bindar’s legal counsel was the former FBI director Louis Freeh. Probably a separate Frontline doco could be produced on the doings of Freeh.

Corruption seems built into the relationship between the US and SA. In one shot of The Dissident a helicopter frames the Kingdom Centre, a tower that looks an awful lot like a taser. Of course, America can talk. We should probably have a high-rise shaped like a cop strangling a Black man and which calls out “I can’t breathe” every hour. Oh say can you see? But my favorite building from SA is the one they’ll call Kingdom Tower being built by the bin Laden family, which looks like an icy middle finger rising up out of the desert. It’s to be the tallest building in the world. Some memorial. Isn’t that a kick in the face?

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.