This Khashoggi business has turned into a laughable parody of a Monty Python dead parrot sketch.
After lying for 17 days that Khashoggi left the embassy within an hour of arriving on October 2, the Saudis have now confirmed he was killed there. Late Friday they issued a farcical statement that the 60 year old journalist had got into “hand to hand” fighting with a dozen security officials and sadly passed away.
Like anybody brings a bone-saw to a fist fight
The image of a forensic doctor, methodically sawing body parts off a living, screaming Washington Post journalist to the sound of music piped into his headphones, did what a ghastly reign of terror failed to do for over a year. #khashoggimurder
This lie won't last long either, once the recordings are released.
What’s amazing in this mess is that it was Jamal Khashoggi, friend to many Saudi royals, who became the flashpoint igniting world attention to the mad prince running Saudi Arabia.
And it was the bone-saw that did it.
A mere six months ago a gushing firehose of luminaries poured out to fête the young prince, take his money, and burnish his international reputation as a reformer.
Apple, Disney, Google, Amazon, Softbank, Twitter, Uber, Slack, Endeavour, JP Morgan Chase, Harvard, MIT, Jeff Bezos, Rupert Murdoch, Ari Emanuel, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, Oprah and Richard Branson all rolled out the red carpet when every one of them should have known better.
It was just one big Gatsby-esque bacchanal until they heard about the bone saw.
The image of a forensic doctor, methodically sawing body parts off a living, screaming Washington Post journalist to the sound of music piped into his headphones, finally did what a ghastly reign of terror failed to do for over a year.
Not the brutal kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, the starving of millions Yemeni women and children, the bombing of schoolbuses, the imprisonment of women’s activists, nor the crackdown on clerics, intellectuals and economists, the brutal detention and extortion of hundreds of Saudi princes and business leaders, the murder of a Saudi general, the silencing of journalists and the public, none of it dimmed Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) rising star.
Until they heard about the bone saw.
“Say hello to my little friend”
It was all so rich, so predictable that Hollywood itself wouldn’t have written the script it starred in.
Suddenly everyone’s racing for the exits. As if Mohammed Bin Scarface had not already been unmasked as a dangerous psychopath for more than a year. As if their wealth and status would insulate them from a man so spectacularly stupid as to butcher one of Jeff Bezos’ journalists while trying to attract Amazon investment to Saudi Arabia.
Such is the power of Washington’s media establishment that they were the one institution the prince could not cross.
The Saudis might be able to pull off their absurd whopper with a president with his own penchant for brazen lies, but not with the rest of the world. Saudi Arabia’s own fortunes—and even those of the prince—have suddenly turned very dark indeed.
Whispered questions are flying around the kingdom about the fate of this monarch.
Saudi Arabia has now suffered humiliating setbacks in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, and, thanks to MBS’s policy as Minister of Defence, is stuck in a quagmire in Yemen, at an estimated cost of some $60 billion a year.
Saudi Arabia hemorrhaging cash by the hour
Saudi Arabia's power and influence come from the geopolitics of the Middle East, its tacit alliance with Israel against Iran, and its extreme military spending--the highest per capita in the world by several orders of magnitude. Vastly higher than American military spending, as a percentage of GDP.
The Saudi economy is surprisingly modest, clocking in at less than half the size of Canada’s, with no other major source of funds than oil. Like Russia, it maintains the illusion of extreme wealth by enriching only a tiny sliver of the population.
In reality, it's hemorrhaging cash by the hour, with a projected deficit of $52 billion for 2018. A comparable deficit in the U.S. would be almost $1.4 trillion.
Because of the revolution in U.S. shale oil production, America is no longer hostage to Saudi oil.
The prince's $100 million Aramco IPO came to nothing, as did his Middle East “peace plan” with Jared and Netanyahu. The U.S. embassy to Israel moved to Jerusalem, and Saudi Arabia came up empty.
Saddled with double-digit unemployment, oil prices underwater for the fourth straight year, the highest per capita military budget in the world by far, and a staggering annual deficit, the kingdom needs new revenue sources, and fast.
That’s no doubt the impetus behind Mohammed’s shakedown at the Ritz last year, where he imprisoned and brutalized hundreds of Saudi royals and businessmen while extorting them for undisclosed cash payments. But the downstream effect was counter-productive, as Saudi domestic investment has languished or even moved to safer off-shore havens.
And foreign direct investment has fallen off a cliff, down from $7.5 billion in 2016 to $1.4 billion a year later.
Long before the Kashoggi, the prince launched Vision2030, a strategic plan to diversify and modernize its economy by building sustainable alternate revenue sources through technological innovation, for which next week’s Future Initiatives conference was to be a key building block.
The jewel in that crown is NEOM, the proposed $500 billion new city to be built for a future of renewable energy, artificial intelligence, science, robotics, entertainment and tourism. What tech partners will build it now?
Do take the time to watch this absurd promo video for NEOM and think of the women, journalists, bloggers, and dissidents in prison—some of whom will die there. The routine beheadings. Think of Jamal Khashoggi of the Washington Post.
The senior management of Amazon, Apple, and Google certainly will.
Saudi Future Investment conference in tatters
The Saudi Future Investment Initiatives conference now lies in tatters, as the world’s corporate and political titans abandoned it last week.
All for a bone saw.
Trump will stick with Saudi Arabia, and global industry may continue to sell its wares to the kingdom.
Yet the litmus test won't be whether the global business community continues to take the Saudi money that has bought influence for decades (it will), but whether it will invest its own assets in a lawless state governed by a lunatic. Because there’s one thing the world can be sure of now: we haven’t seen the worst of Mohammed bin Salman.
No one foresaw the putsch that ousted MBS’s predecessor from the line of succession to the ailing King Salman. The widely respected Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was removed in June, 2017, just weeks after Donald Trump’s visit to the kingdom, and has effectively been under house arrest since.
How long will it be before powerful interests within and without the country deliver a similar (or worse) fate to the mad prince? Close observers don't offer much hope, noting that the prince's rivals have been effectively neutralized, and the aging King Salman probably cannot act.
Yet if the global business community does not buy in to the Saudi Vision2030 plan, if oil prices don't rise, if capital investment continues to atrophy, and the war in Yemen continues, the implications for regional stability are ominous.
And that's without factoring the volatility of Wahhabi extremism that was the source of the 9/11 attacks on America. Mohammed Bin Salman has eviscerated and weakened the Saudi government's counter-terrorism apparatus, in his efforts to eliminate the influence of the crown prince he supplanted, Mohammed bin Nayef.
So watch this space.
How long Prince MBS can last is anybody's guess.
Whatever comes next, his enablers have signed their names to it.