‘PUTIN OF THE DESERT’
The Real Reasons Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Wanted Khashoggi ‘Dead or Alive’
His death is key to understanding the political forces that helped turn the Middle East from a region of hope seven years ago to one of brutal repression and slaughter today.
PARIS — The mind plays strange tricks sometimes, especially after a tragedy. When I sat down to write this story about the Saudi regime’s homicidal obsession with the Muslim Brotherhood, the first person I thought I’d call was Jamal Khashoggi. For more than 20 years I phoned him or met with him, even smoked the occasional water pipe with him, as I looked for a better understanding of his country, its people, its leaders, and the Middle East. We often disagreed, but he almost always gave me fresh insights into the major figures of the region, starting with Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, and the political trends, especially the explosion of hope that was called the Arab Spring in 2011. He would be just the man to talk to about the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood, because he knew both sides of that bitter relationship so well.
And then, of course, I realized that Jamal is dead, murdered precisely because he knew too much.
Although the stories keep changing, there is now no doubt that 33-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the power in front of his decrepit father’s throne, had put out word to his minions that he wanted Khashoggi silenced, and the hit-team allegedly understood that as “wanted dead or alive.” But the [petro]buck stops with MBS, as bin Salman’s called. He’s responsible for a gruesome murder just as Henry II was responsible for the murder of Thomas Becket when he said, “Who will rid me of that meddlesome priest?” In this case, a meddlesome journalist.
We now know that a few minor players will pay. Some of them might even be executed by Saudi headsmen (one already was reported killed in a car crash). But experience also tells us the spotlight of world attention will shift. Arms sales will go ahead. And the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi risks becoming just one more entry in the annals of intensifying, murderous repression of journalists who are branded the “enemy of the people” by Donald Trump and various two-bit tyrants around the world.
There is more to Khashoggi’s murder than the question of press freedom, however. His death holds the key to understanding the political forces that have helped turn the Middle East from a region of hope seven years ago to one of brutal repression and ongoing slaughter today. Which brings us back to the question of the Saudis’ fear and hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, the regional rivalries of those who support it and those who oppose it, and the game of thrones in the House of Saud itself. Khashoggi was not central to any of those conflicts, but his career implicated him, fatally, in all of them.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not a benign political organization, but neither is it Terror Incorporated. It was created in the 1920s and developed in the 1930s and ‘40s as an Islamic alternative to the secular fascist and communist ideologies that dominated revolutionary anti-colonial movements at the time. From those other political organizations the Brotherhood learned the values of a tight structure, party discipline, and secrecy, with a public face devoted to conventional political activity—when possible—and a clandestine branch that resorted to violence if that appeared useful.
In the novel Sugar Street, Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz sketched a vivid portrait of a Brotherhood activist spouting the group’s political credo in Egypt during World War II. “Islam is a creed, a way of worship, a nation and a nationality, a religion, a state, a form of spirituality, a Holy Book, and a sword,” says the Brotherhood preacher. “Let us prepare for a prolonged struggle. Our mission is not to Egypt alone but to all Muslims worldwide. It will not be successful until Egypt and all other Islamic nations have accepted these Quranic principles in common. We shall not put our weapons away until the Quran has become a constitution for all Believers.”
For several decades after World War II, the Brotherhood’s movement was eclipsed by Arab nationalism, which became the dominant political current in the region, and secular dictators moved to crush the organization. But the movement found support among the increasingly embattled monarchies of the Gulf, including and especially Saudi Arabia, where the rule of the king is based on his custodianship of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. At the height of the Cold War, monarchies saw the Brotherhood as a helpful antidote to the threat of communist-led or Soviet-allied movements and ideologies.
By the 1980s, several of the region’s rulers were using the Brotherhood as a tool to weaken or destroy secular opposition. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat courted them, then moved against them, and paid with his life in 1981, murdered by members of a group originally tied to the Brotherhood. Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, then spent three decades in power manipulating the Brotherhood as an opposition force, outlawing the party as such, but allowing its known members to run for office in the toothless legislature, where they formed a significant bloc and did a lot of talking.
Jordan’s King Hussein played a similar game, but went further, giving clandestine support to members of the Brotherhood waging a covert war against Syrian tyrant Hafez al-Assad—a rebellion largely destroyed in 1982 when Assad’s brother killed tens of thousands of people in the Brotherhood stronghold of Hama.
Even Israel got in on the action, initially giving Hamas, the Brotherhood branch among the Palestinians, tacit support as opposition to the left-leaning Palestine Liberation Organization (although PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat once identified with the Brotherhood himself).
The Saudi royals, too, thought the Brotherhood could be bought off and manipulated for their own ends. “Over the years the relationship between the Saudis and the Brotherhood ebbed and flowed,” says Lorenzo Vidino, an expert on extremism at George Washington University and one of the foremost scholars in the U.S. studying the Brotherhood’s history and activities.
Over the decades factions of the Brotherhood, like communists and fascists before them, “adapted to individual environments,” says Vidino. In different countries it took on different characteristics. Thus Hamas, or its military wing, is easily labeled as terrorist by most definitions, while Ennahda in Tunisia, which used to be called terrorist by the ousted Ben Ali regime, has behaved as a responsible political party in a complex democratic environment. To the extent that Jamal Khashoggi identified with the Brotherhood, that was the current he espoused. But democracy, precisely, is what Mohammed bin Salman fears.
Vidino traces the Saudis’ intense hostility toward the Brotherhood to the uprisings that swept through much of the Arab world in 2011. “The Saudis together with the Emiratis saw it as a threat to their own power,” says Vidino.
Other regimes in the region thought they could use the Brotherhood to extend their influence. First among these was the powerful government in Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has such longstanding ties to the Islamist movement that some scholars refer to his elected government as “Brotherhood 2.0.” Also hoping to ride the Brotherhood wave was tiny, ultra-rich Qatar, whose leaders had used their vast natural gas wealth and their popular satellite television channel, Al Jazeera, to project themselves on the world stage and, they hoped, buy some protection from their aggressive Saudi neighbors. As one senior Qatari official told me back in 2013, “The future of Qatar is soft power.” After 2011, Jazeera’s Arabic channel frequently appeared to propagandize in the Brotherhood’s favor as much as, say, Fox News does in Trump’s.
Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, and the birthplace of the Brotherhood, became a test case. Although Jamal Khashoggi often identified the organization with the idealistic hopes of the peaceful popular uprising that brought down the Mubarak dynasty, in fact the Egyptian Brotherhood had not taken part. Its leaders had a modus vivendi they understood with Mubarak, and it was unclear what the idealists in Tahrir Square, or the military tolerating them, might do.
After the dictator fell and elections were called, however, the Brotherhood made its move, using its party organization and discipline, as well as its perennial slogan, “Islam is the solution,” to put its man Mohamed Morsi in the presidential palace and its people in complete control of the government. Or so it thought.
In Syria, meanwhile, the Brotherhood believed it could and should lead the popular uprising against the Assad dynasty. That had been its role 30 years earlier, and it had paid mightily.
For more than a year, it looked like the Brotherhood’s various branches might sweep to power across the unsettled Arab world, and the Obama administration, for want of serious alternatives, was inclined to go with the flow.
But then the Saudis struck back.
In the summer of 2013, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the commander of the Egyptian armed forces, led a military coup with substantial popular support against the conspicuously inept Brotherhood government, which had proved quickly that Islam was not really the “solution” for much of anything.
Al-Sissi had once been the Egyptian military attaché in Riyadh, where he had many connections, and the Saudis quickly poured money into Egypt to shore up his new regime. At the same time, he declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and launched a campaign of ruthless repression. Within weeks of the coup, the Egyptian military attacked two camps of Brotherhood protesters and slaughtered hundreds.
In Syria, the efforts to organize a credible political opposition to President Bashar al-Assad proved virtually impossible as the Qataris and Turks backed the Brotherhood while the Saudis continued their vehement opposition. But that does not mean that Riyadh supported moderate secular forces. Far from it. The Saudis still wanted to play a major role bringing down the Syrian regime allied to another arch enemy, the government of Iran. So the Saudis put their weight behind ultra-conservative Salafis, thinking they might be easier to control than the Muslim Brothers.
Riyadh is “okay with quietist Salafism,” says Vidino. But the Salafis’ religious extremism quickly shaded over into the thinking of groups like the al Qaeda spinoff called the Nusra Front. Amid all the infighting, little progress was made against Assad, and there to exploit the chaos was the so-called Islamic State (which Assad partially supported in its early days).
Then, in January 2015, at the height of all this regional turmoil, the aged and infirm Salman bin Abdelaziz ascended to the throne of Saudi Arabia. His son, Mohammed bin Salman, began taking into his own hands virtually all the reins of power, making bold decisions about reforming the Saudi economy, taking small measures to give the impression he might liberalize society—and moving to intimidate or otherwise neutralize anyone who might challenge his power.
Saudi Arabia is a country named after one family, the al Saud, and while there is nothing remotely democratic about the government, within the family itself with its thousands of princes there traditionally has been an effort to find consensus. Every king up to now has been a son of the nation’s founder, Abdelaziz ibn Saud, and thus a brother or half brother of the other kings.
When Salman took over, he finally named successors from the next generation. His nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, then 57 and well known for his role fighting terrorism, became crown prince. His son, Mohammed bin Salman, became deputy crown prince. But bin Nayef’s position between the king and his favorite son clearly was untenable. As one Saudi close to the royals put it: “Between the onion and the skin there is only the stink.”
Bin Nayef was pushed out in 2017. The New York Times reported that during an end-of-Ramadan gathering at the palace he “was told he was going to meet the king and was led into another room, where royal court officials took away his phones and pressured him to give up his posts as crown prince and interior minister. … At first, he refused. But as the night wore on, the prince, a diabetic who suffers from the effects of a 2009 assassination attempt by a suicide bomber, grew tired.” Royal court officials meanwhile called around to other princes saying bin Nayef had a drug problem and was unfit to be king.
Similar pressure was brought to bear on many of the richest and most powerful princes in the kingdom, locked up in the Ritz Carlton hotel in 2017, ostensibly as part of an extra-legal fight against corruption. They were forced to give allegiance to MBS at the same time they were giving up a lot of their money.
That pattern of coerced allegiance is what the Saudis now admit they wanted from Jamal Khashoggi. He was no prince, but he had been closely associated in the past with the sons of the late King Faisal, particularly Turki al-Faisal, who was for many years the head of the Saudi intelligence apparatus and subsequently served as ambassador to the United Kingdom, then the United States.
Although Turki always denied he had ambitions to be king, his name often was mentioned in the past as a contender. Thus far he seems to have weathered the rule of MBS, but given the record of the crown prince anyone close to the Al Faisal branch of the family, like Khashoggi, would be in a potentially perilous position.
Barbara Bodine is a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, which has suffered mightily since MBS launched a brutal proxy war there against Iran. Both MBS and Trump have declared the regime in Tehran enemy number one in the region. But MBS botched the Yemen operation from the start. It was dubbed “Decisive Storm” when it began in 2015, and was supposed to last only a few weeks, but the war continues to this day. Starvation and disease have spread through Yemen, creating one of the world’s greatest humanitarian disasters. And for the moment, in one of those developments that makes the Middle East so rich in ironies, in Yemen the Saudis are allied with a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“What drives MBS is a ruthless effort toward total control domestically and regionally; he is Putin of the Desert,” says Bodine. “He has basically broken the back of the princelings, the religious establishment and the business elite, brought all ministries and agencies of power under his sole control ('I alone can fix it'), and jailed, killed or put under house arrest activists and any and all potential as well as real opposition (including his mother).”
In 2017, MBS and his backers in the Emirates accused Qatar of supporting “terrorism,” issuing a set of demands that included shutting down Al Jazeera. The Saudis closed off the border and looked for other ways, including military options, to put pressure on the poor little rich country that plays so many angles it has managed to be supportive of the Brotherhood and cozy with Iran while hosting an enormous U.S. military base.
“It was Qatar's independent streak—not just who they supported but that they had a foreign policy divorced from the dictates of Riyadh,” says Bodine. “The basic problem is that both the Brotherhood and Iran offer competing Islam-based governing structures that challenge the Saudi model.”
“Jamal's basic sin,” says Bodine,“was he was a credible insider, not a fire-breathing radical. He wrote and spoke in English for an American audience via credible mainstream media and was well regarded and highly visible within the Washington chattering classes. He was accessible, moderate and operated within the West. He challenged not the core structure of the Kingdom but the legitimacy of the current rulers, especially MBS.”
“I do think the game plan was to make him disappear and I suspect the end game was always to make him dead,” said Bodine in a long and thoughtful email. “If he was simply jailed within Saudi there would have been a drumbeat of pressure for his release. Dead—there is certainly a short term cost, whether more than anticipated or longer than anticipated we don't know yet, but the world will move on. Jamal will become a footnote, a talking point perhaps, but not a crusade. The dismembered body? No funeral. Taking out Jamal also sends a powerful signal to any dissident that there is no place safe.”