The discussion about what happened in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last week is still open. Without leaving a trace, the story will be hitting the headlines for a while. Ongoing investigations are also very unclear, or possibly biased or geopolitically influenced. Continuing headlines in the Western media are mainly repeating Turkish government claims that proof has been found that Khashoggi has been abducted and killed in the consulate. Repeated claims by Turkish officials (always unnamed) or statements by Turkish president Erdogan have until now not been followed up by real evidence, proof of the whereabouts of Khashoggi, and the possible culprits.
Anti-Saudi forces, such as Turkey, Qatar, and critical Western politicians are having a field-day. Without a real confrontation the reformist stature of their main opponent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), is unravelling. American Senators, European politicians and Turkish officials, all are calling for very harsh measures against the Saudi Kingdom if proof is given for the direct involvement of the Saudi government or members of the Royal Family, including MBS, in the abduction and killing of the journalist.
The ongoing media frenzy, understandable looking at the possibility of an illegal abduction of a journalist and killing, still could have very detrimental effects on the stability of the Kingdom in the coming months. Without any prove yet shown to the press or the judiciary, opposition forces inside of Saudi Arabia have been given very powerful tools to be used to destabilize MBS’s power position, and even threaten the position of the King. The future of the Kingdom is at stake, not due to lower oil prices, a war with Iran or a reemergence of Daesh, but based on international media pressure enticing investors and corporations to possibly reconsider their involvement in Riyadh’s ongoing economic diversification plans.
The main question to be asked at present, looking at only the position of Saudi Arabia due to the ongoing issues, is why has this happened at present, just 2 weeks before the “Davos in the Desert” or “Future Investment Initiative 2018” in Riyadh. Taking the position of James Bond or Jack Ryan, the overall operation is very unprofessional. If this has been organized by the Saudi Security Services, supported by the upper-echelon in the Kingdom, the operation is flawed, has been operated in a very unprofessional way, not even taking into account the underlying factors, such as that Khashoggi was working for the Washington Post, known to be critical about several issues in the Kingdom, and its allies, UAE-Egypt. Spy-ops 1.0 would have prevented this operation to have happened right now or in Turkey. The latter, as is known, would take any opportunity to use this situation to its overall advantage, and to undermine the position of the Kingdom, and MBS in particular.
At the same time, looking outside of normal security focused geopolitics, an operation against Khashoggi could have been done in the US or elsewhere after the FII2018 in Riyadh. Taking the example of FII2017, which was followed by the RitzCarlton “holiday” of a long list of key financial and royal players in Saudi Arabia, it would have been much more functional, and less political-economic sensitive if the parties would have been waiting until the end of October. Any low level official would have been able to assess the enormous fall-out for the FII2018 conference, as Western investors and corporates will be scared off to participate. The main question currently should be “Why Now, Why in Turkey?” Also, who has to gain from the fallout? The coming months will be showing a possible more clearer picture than the current media fallout is showing. What is clear, FII2018, which was presented as Phase II in MBS’ Saudi Vision 2030 strategy, is now becoming a possible geopolitical pressure valve hitting Saudi’s stability on every level.
Already, a growing list of participants has been publicly stating that they are not going to attend. Several high-profile US based media representatives have stated on the internet that they will not be taking part in FII2018, as long as the Khashoggi issue is not being solved. The impact of the statements by Virgin Group’s CEO Richard Branson, Uber CEO Khosrowshahi, Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, AOL co-founder Steve Case and The Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington, threatening not to attend is a major blow to Riyadh’s dream. Branson, last year one of the surprise supporters of MBS during FII2017, even has stated on his company’s website that Virgin is pulling out of the investment deals with the Saudi sovereign wealth fund PIF, threatening to cut all ties if the Khashoggi case is not solved.
The coming days, more Western CEOs are expected to be joining this already high-profile list, increasing directly the pressure on Riyadh to act swiftly to deal with this gigantic crisis. After the RitzCarlton detainment of leading Saudis, Western investors already had shown to become a bit wary of investments in the Kingdom. The outcome however, and the effective media strategy of the Kingdom, convinced the majority that the move made by MBS was a necessary one to deal with corruption and a stale ward economic situation. MBS was still being able to continue his reform drive, even if sometimes combined with repressive moves against critics in the Kingdom.
Investors interests in the Kingdom is still very high. The ongoing dramatic changes in Saudi Arabia gives a high level of appetite to take part, as seen by the (former) long-list of high profile participants expected in FII2018. The ongoing support for the Giga Projects of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund PIF is a clear sign of the growing interest. Western, Russian, Chinese and Asian investors and corporations have been flocking the hotels of Riyadh, Khobar, Jeddah and Dhahran. The Khashoggi case however has brought a full-stop to this for at least Western investors, as the latter will need to explain its shareholders why they are still going to fly to Riyadh. The combined media-political frenzy currently shown is going to block several major investor groups, especially US, UK, Germany or Canada, to openly take part anymore.
These negative developments will wipe away the rosy picture that was surrounding the Crown Prince, and his entourage. The power of the media, and existing political opposition in the West, has been clearly misunderstood in Riyadh, and other Arab countries. Riyadh will need to quickly address these issues, including opening up its books on Khashoggi, even if it would implement the Royal Family. For the long-term, Riyadh’s future will depend on an influx of cash and companies, willing to take part in its future. Without transparancy and rule-of-law, Western investors will be scared to even openly consider taking part.
As always, the world is a funny but dark place. Taking Jack Ryan again as a lead actor, Riyadh already has been playing chess on several boards. Ryan’s approach, most probably MBS is a vivid reader of Clancy too, would be to counter Western criticism and the fall-out of Khashoggi, by opening up even more to Russia, China, India and other possible investors. Looking at the extreme level of criticism coming out of the West, the rest of the World has been very quiet. Several Arab states have even been showing their support for the position of MBS and the Kingdom. No real criticism has come from officials or media-outlets in Asia or Russia. Chess is currently being played on a higher level, it seems. East against West is now the line of confrontation. Saudi Arabia, as some state the prime-example of the Middle Kingdom, is placed geographically and strategically between these two opposite sides. One main result of the Khashoggi case could be that the main language at FII2018 could not anymore be English, but a combination of Russian-Chinese, while English on third, with an Asian intonation.
MBS’s Western focused Saudi Vision 2030 approach, just look at the overall C-level posts held in the new Saudi entities, such as NEOM, Alaama, Qiddiya and others, could take a 180 degrees turn right now. Confronted by the fall-out of Khashoggi, a new geopolitical orientation will be put in place, with two leading players, Russia and China. FII2018 and other meetings will show in how far Riyadh is willing to change sides, not only with regards to investments but also looking at military cooperation. China and Asia is mainly thought after for the export of oil and locking in demand. Russia is seen as a possible geopolitical and military replacement of the US. Donald Trump’s remarks yesterday to the press that too much pressure on Riyadh is not good for US/Western interests is one that needs to be taken into account. The Young Prince in Riyadh is willing to take the fall-out of his actions as a fact, without getting weak knees. Supported by the UAE, Egypt and Asia’s Tigers, the position of the Kingdom is strong and clear. Taking Trump’s adagium, MBS would state “MSASA” or Make Saudi Arabia Strong Again. After decades of internationalism in geopolitics, realism is back in town. The strong act on their own, national interests go first.
The hardline position taken by MBS could however also backfire, if not mitigated by some chess master strokes. A lack of investments flowing in, a possible sanctions regime by some Western countries (such as Germany, UK, Canada and several liberal European countries), will put Saudi Vision as a diversification strategy on hold or even on ice. Without European-US technical knowhow and support, the ongoing diversification drive is not applicable and sustainable. NEOM, Qiddiya and others projects, will need Western know how and support, Russia-China will not be able to implement these dreams at all.
Lower economic growth, or even a new economic crisis in the Kingdom, will put King Salman and MBS in a danger zone. Support at present has come from the young Saudis, expecting to live the dream presented the last 3 years. The loss of part of these dreams could propone still existing opposition in the Kingdom into a much stronger power position very soon. The pressure was already on MBS to present a more applicable less dreamy project approach on FII2018 than the year before.