PARIS—It looks like heads will roll in Saudi Arabia, literally, for the murder last year of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But they’ll be detached from people that few Saudis and fewer Americans have ever heard of, and certainly not Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the mercurial and malign monarch-in-waiting beloved of the Trump clan.
Never mind the CIA’s belief that the elaborately choreographed and gruesomely executed murder of The Washington Post columnist could not have been carried out unless MBS authorized it. Conveniently, the two top aides who would have connected the crown prince to the crime reportedly were cleared.
The court statement Monday announcing the sentence named none of the five condemned to death. But Saudi Deputy General Prosecutor Shalaan Al-Shalaan told a press conference “We found that Khashoggi’s murder was not premeditated.”
This travesty is in fact much bigger news outside the kingdom of Saudi Arabia than inside. There, it’s party time (or hangover time) in the wake of a high-tech three-day rave meant to titillate the kingdom’s young people with hitherto banned music, dancing, and even a few far-from-veiled semi-celebrities from the United States and Britain.
As the Associated Press described it, “More than 70 world-renowned DJs were invited to perform across five stages to the backdrop of surrealist performances—including one with a woman in a skintight sky blue leotard writhing from a hot-air balloon over a crowd of young Saudi men.”
MBS, better than any of his forebears, understands the power of what Roman tyrants used to call “bread and circuses,” a phrase attributed to Juvenal and satisfactorily defined on Wikipedia as “the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace.”
As MBS’ decrepit father, King Salman, fades from the scene, the crown prince has made colossal mistakes, including the Yemen war that’s become Riyadh’s quagmire. But he has managed to crush and intimidate virtually all challenges to his power. Rival princes have been imprisoned and stripped of fortunes. Liberal critics have been jailed, flogged, and in some cases sentenced to death while the once-powerful religious police have been threatened or bribed into submission.
(As I write this, I cannot help but think how envious an American president from Queens must be when he looks at this man who will be king—a prince rich beyond even Donald Trump’s dreams of avarice, with power as absolute as any medieval tyrant’s.)
But let us return for a moment to the matter of Jamal Khashoggi—the murder that Trump and MBS would like us to forget, and an inconvenient atrocity that most young Saudis already are tossing in the circular file of their well-distracted memories.
In Saudi Arabia as elsewhere, as long as people feel prosperous and are allowed to indulge their appetites, the abuse of authority by their rulers is treated as political theater beyond their control, and they respond with a willing suspension of disbelief.
Thus it hardly matters that the Saudi prosecutor’s claim defies credulity when he says the butchering of Khashoggi—for such it was—“was not premeditated.”
But permit me to go over a few of the grisly details again as revealed last summer by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and reported in The Daily Beast.
Turkish authorities had bugged the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and various investigators, including the CIA, subsequently were allowed to listen to the recordings. Members of the U.N. team took meticulous notes on the dialogue and the other sounds monitored as Khashoggi was killed and then chopped up for disposal on Oct. 2, 2018.
They heard Dr. Salah Mohammed Tubaigy, from the Saudi interior ministry, explaining to the head of the hit team before Khashoggi arrived how they’d dispose of the portly journalist, referred to as “the sacrificial animal.”
“Joints will be separated. It is not a problem,” says Tubaigy. “If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them.”
A man more or less of Khashoggi’s build then dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes and walked out the back of the consulate to be seen by closed-circuit cameras, while plastic garbage bags were carried out the front.
We don’t know at this juncture whether Tubaigy or the man in Khashoggi’s clothes were among those sentenced to death, or given lesser penalties, or cleared somehow of the crime.
In any case, Khashoggi’s remains have never been found, and MBS must have known all along how this would play at home. Out of sight, out of mind. Party on.