Irfan Husain in The Dawn
SCHADENFREUDE is a wonderful German word used to express mirth at somebody else’s woes, just as Charlie Chaplin used to giggle when a passerby slipped on a banana peel and fell on his backside.
This is how the world currently feels towards Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or, as he likes to be called, MBS) as he wriggles in the spotlight following Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder. Riyadh’s early denials caused only open derision and disbelief among even supporters of the kingdom.
The problem with one person wielding absolute power and control is that when something goes badly wrong, it becomes hard to pretend he knew nothing about it. So when all we got from Riyadh for the first fortnight were blanket denials about any knowledge or responsibility for the gruesome events in its consulate in Istanbul, we responded with hoots of open incredulity.
Recently, the Saudi government released a chilling photograph of Jamal Khashoggi’s son, Salah, shaking hands with MBS while King Salman stands beaming in the background. Salah is clearly grief-stricken, while MBS has a cold, hard expression. Khashoggi’s son had been under a travel ban for a year.
While Turkey’s President Erdogan has been piling on the pressure, few expect King Salman to sideline his favourite son anytime soon. The best that can be expected is for him to be relieved of some of the portfolios he has accumulated.
Ever since Khashoggi’s assassination made headlines around the world three weeks ago, the story has completely monopolised the 24/7 news cycle. Apart from the shock and horror over the sickening nature of the crime, journalists and politicians alike saw an opportunity to flay the ruling family of what is widely seen as a rotten kingdom.
Turkish intelligence sources have revealed that the audio tape they possess of the torture Khashoggi suffered includes a segment that indicates that his fingers were chopped off while he was still alive. This, apparently, was the reason a bone saw was part of the Saudi hit-squad’s kit, and this savage amputation was intended to send out a signal to other dissidents who dared to use their fingers to write against the crown prince. Apparently, in backward tribal societies, any offending organ is hacked off to teach everybody a lesson.
Given the massive fallout from the crime, why did the Saudis think they would get away with it? The bumbling antics of the killers to cover their tracks would not have fooled Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther fame. We had a joker who pretended to be Khashoggi walk out of the consulate in the journalist’s clothing, but wearing joggers instead of the black leather shoes Khashoggi actually wore as he entered the consulate.
The reason MBS and his inner circle went ahead with their ham-fisted plot was that they didn’t think their cover-up would be questioned. Used to eliminating domestic opponents without having to justify themselves to anybody, they genuinely thought the rest of the world was an equally lawless zone. Also, MBS — and Saudi money — had been welcomed with open arms around the globe, so he probably thought his actions, no matter how grotesque, would be swallowed.
But three weeks later, the furore continues unabated despite the hundreds of millions of dollars the kingdom has spent on public relations. Even Republican senators who once supported Riyadh without reservations have been revolted at Khashoggi’s murder. One threatened to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia”.
All this bad publicity has taken the sheen off the grand investment conference in Riyadh dubbed ‘Davos in the desert’. Many important political figures from the US, the UK and France bailed out, while key business leaders decided to stay at home. The reality is that MBS is currently toxic, and nobody wants to be associated with him.
It is ironic that tens of thousands of Yemeni lives failed to achieve what one journalist’s death did: call the world’s attention to a cruel, repressive regime that has no respect for human rights. In death, Khashoggi did what all his Washington Post columns could not: shine a revealing spotlight on MBS and his nasty, wilful ways.
But at the end of the day, money talks and bulls---t walks. Although Germany has blocked future arms sales, the US and the UK have no such sanctions in mind. In fact, Trump has clearly said that Saudi arms sales are too important to forego. Western greed is what MBS is counting on. For well over seven decades, US-Saudi relations have been built on the sale of oil and arms, and despite global revulsion over Khashoggi’s killing, politicians and arms manufacturers have little shame or morality.
So after a few weeks, it will probably be business as usual.