RIYADH — Values or interests, ethics or realpolitik? The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi commando is the perfect illustration of the dilemma that's at the heart of any reflection on international politics.
Not only is Saudi Arabia a country that the Western world sells arms to and buys oil from — it is also a key to the regional balance of power in the face of Iran. It is also a crucial element for anyone concerned about the evolution of Islam in the world. It is a country that looked to finally be on the path of reform.
For the first time, a young, modern and energetic prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), seemed determined to tackle the corrupt shackles that have long paralyzed Saudi Arabia. Western countries, first and foremost the United States, were eagerly awaiting this change in the political trajectory of Riyadh. How not to be seduced by this prince who is so different, so convincing and who is, by his considerable purchases of arms, a contributor to the reduction of the American debt?
The Sunni world had found a leader, while Shia Iran has become a rival worthy of the title. Egypt was out of the picture. Recep Tayyip Erdogan's (non-Arab) Turkey — despite its NATO membership — was a very thorny partner. For Donald Trump, who intended to break the political balance between Saudi Arabia and Obama's Iran, MBS was a "gift from the gods."
Prince Mohammed bin Salman — Photo: The White House
Admittedly, MBS took serious political risks in Yemen, not hesitating to shed the blood of innocent civilians, as if to compensate for the weaknesses of his army. Admittedly, the "kidnapping" of the Lebanese prime minister, as well as the episode of the hostage-taking of the "princes" inside Saudi Arabia, had struck a minor chord in the world for their (relative) brutality and radicalism. But by going after other wealthy Saudis, the young prince wanted to send a clear message: the fight against corruption had become one of the priorities of the regime.
In the Khashoggi case, the message could not be clearer: if you are a dissident or mere critic of the regime, you now know the fate that awaits you. You dream of a "democratic revolution" in the Arab world? I will leave no room for you to pursue such a notion. We must not confuse changes from above with revolution from below. As for me, MBS, I am the absolute master of the tempo of reform.
"The tact in audacity is to know how far you can go, and when it's too far." The Saudi Crown Prince is impulsive, perhaps lacking maturity, and certainly encouraged by his special relationship with Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, but until now he's been too far away. But now the distance that allowed the world to turn a blind eye has vanished, as one cannot abduct with impunity a prominent journalist, not simply a Saudi journalist, but a columnist at The Washington Post — and have it carried out in a rival country like Turkey.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi produced two collateral victims.
The crime, barbaric in its extreme brutality, was as shocking as the choice of the target. Also naive: it was easy to foresee that the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul was well-monitored, allowing the Turkish authorities to follow a live murder, with the details skilfully and gradually revealed, step by step afterward. Erdogan has had the good luck to be able to isolate his Saudi rival, while passing along the following indirect message: "In Turkey, we can put journalists in prison, but we do not massacre them and we do not dismember their bodies as the Saudis do. "
Moreover, 17 years after the 9/11 attacks, the world is not ready to passively accept the arrival on a foreign territory of a Saudi "death squad." The Crown Prince, confident in the strength of his special and "familial" ties to Donald Trump's America, believed himself not only above the law but also strategically and economically invulnerable. Who would take — as Canada has courageously done — the risk of Saudi sanctions?
"Do not provoke me with your human rights, otherwise you will not do business with me." But the Saudis need America more than America needs them. Washington now has energy independence, thanks to its oil and shale gas. Riyadh's army is totally dependent on the U.S. The balance between the two partners no longer exists, as long as it has ever existed.
One can think that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi produced two collateral victims: a principal, MBS, a secondary, Donald Trump. Will the Saudi prince, who does not lack enemies in the royal family, have the means to resist the pressure of all those who want his departure? Is MBS not driving Saudi Arabia to isolation, then chaos? The Saudi Crown Prince now appears to many investors as too risky. What might he do next?
Trump does not come out unscathed. "You do not put all your eggs in one basket," says popular wisdom. But that's what Washington did with Saudi Arabia. In trying to create privileged, personal ties with "problematic despots", was the American president taking unnecessary risks?
Diplomacy is not a science, it is an art that presupposes a mixture of vision, prudence and experience. One cannot improvise Talleyrand or Bismarck. And finally, it is never realistic to be too cynical.
See more from World Affairs here