Jamal Khashoggi disappearance: too much at stake for Saudi Arabia to face any real punishment

Richard Harris says the case of the ‘meddlesome’ regime critic has triggered Western outrage, but the rest of the world needs to consider what instability in Saudi Arabia would mean, given how vital its oil exports are

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 October, 2018, 10:59am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 October, 2018, 10:36pm

In 1170, the English king, Henry II, angered by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, said, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Stung by this, four of his knights travelled from France to Canterbury, to hack Becket down in his own cathedral. 

Modern spies seem to be just as cack-handed in using their licence to kill. We have moved from suave deadliness reminiscent of wartime efficiency, into the age of bumbling idiots – from James Bond to Johnny English.

Last year saw the unleashing of chemical weapons on a third country when a couple of Russian spooks attacked a has-been old spy with the nerve agent Novichok in the UK. The Russians might as well have left a memo with their name, mobile number and signed confession, so incompetent were they in executing the ludicrous plan.

The more recent accusation that Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist critical of the Saudi regime, had disappeared and presumed killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is another chilling example of getting rid of those deemed “meddlesome”.

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The Turkish authorities undid Saudi protestations of innocence by publishing CCTV evidence showing that the journalist went in and did not emerge. It is at least positive to see that street cameras and facial recognition are still being used to solve crime rather than just in clandestine surveillance.

The accusations from Turkey led to an immediate breakout of righteous anger that spurred many business leaders, including the chiefs of several global banks, industries and media outlets, to cancel their appearances at the upcoming Saudi Future Investment Initiative; the big jamboree in Riyadh known as “Davos in the Desert”.

Then we had the surprising sight of a United States president calling for “severe punishment” of its most critical ally in the Middle East, on the same day that he received a US pastor recently released by Turkey. The speed at which Ankara has moved from Trump’s sworn opponent to the purveyor of truth proves that a week is a long time in geopolitics.

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The incident puts the spotlight firmly on powerful Saudi heir apparent Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been seen as, variously, a liberal influence – relaxing the ban on women drivers – and a repressive one. Dissidents in Saudi Arabia can serve long prison terms and fear execution.

Under his influence, the country has uncharacteristically picked fights with Qatar and Canada, and fought a proxy war with Iran in Yemen. Last November, he solidified his position by incarcerating powerful royals (including the formerly 45th richest man in the world, Prince Al-Waleed) and releasing them only when they surrendered assets to the state. This latest incident has severely embarrassed the kingdom and the crown prince might find his wings clipped by the elderly King Salman himself.

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However, the ruination of the big set piece conference is as far as it is going to go. Sadly, the world has more important ramifications to worry about than the disappearance and alleged death of a “meddlesome priest” by thuggish interrogators. Unlike the Russians, a Saudi apology is likely to be forthcoming, and forgiveness quick. World leaders might be angry about the fate of the journalist but the thought of creating an unstable Saudi Arabia by “punishing” the kingdom is unthinkable.

Saudi Arabia’s dominance over other Opec producers means that, on a day-to-day basis, it controls the oil price. For 40 years, it has been smart enough to limit the extreme falls and cap the rises of the oil price. The country lifts the second-most barrels of oil daily (after the US) and produces a third of Opec’s output. The nation’s main export is critical for economies like China and India – 40 per cent of the world’s population. Russia and the US may have oil themselves, but they are still Opec price-takers.

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Everybody – Russia, China, the US and the rest of the world – needs Saudi political stability. A civil war would devastate global oil production. If one of the Muslim fundamentalist groups took power, that would surely lead to a regional Gulf war and would be the catalyst for the mother of all global economic crises.

Saudi Arabia is the country with the biggest geopolitical risk in the world today, bar none. Whether you agree with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or not, whether you like him, or not, it is in everybody’s interests for him to behave.

Richard Harris is chief executive of Port Shelter Investment and a veteran investment manager, banker, writer and broadcaster, and financial expert witness